Sunday, March 31, 2013

Kathakali in Kochi

"The art form of Kathakali crystallized at around the same time as Shakespeare was scribbling his plays." Lonely Planet South India and Kerala

Based on the Hindu epics, the Ramayana, the Mahamharata and the Puranas, the Kathakali perfomance is a dramatized presentation of one the classic stories. The themes revolve around the ages old conflicts between righteousness and evil, poverty and riches, war and peace.

A full temple performance can take up to eight hours. For the sake of tourists, they perform a cut-down version of about an hour. Frankly I wasn't all that interested in dragging myself out of our magnificent hotel, the Taj Malabar to go anywhere, never mind to a hot, mosquito-ridden theater to watch guys paint their faces green.  The Taj is just splendid - every detail, perfect. I sent out laundry and it returned in a few hours in a small leather case, ribbon wrapped with a flower knotted up in it. Each piece of laundry was tissue wrapped. Nobody gives service in hotels like they do in India. Cannot be beaten. If you call for anything, it appears immediately.

It's suggested you go to the performance venue an hour ahead of time to watch the performers apply make-up and get into character. It was well-worth the effort to get there. The make-up was fascinating to watch. Two men performed - one playing the part of evil, the woman of course. The other man played a righteous and beneficent prince. In addition to the complex painting of his face a band of white material is glued to his jaw bone to make him look fierce. A huge wide swirl of skirt and heavy headgear add to the impressive size and grandeur of the good guy. The whole performance with drums pounding and the performers dancers weaving and bobbing around each other was mesmerizing.

“To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak” Indian proverb

During the course of our travels, we saw two classical Indian dance performances of the Bharatanatyom variety - one, a private performance by an incredibly talented 13 year old girl and the other by two young women. I adored this dancing - athletic and graceful, the girls have to possess an amazing amount of stamina to carry off a performance. Make-up for this also requires more than an hour. The hair is plaited with flowers; they are bedecked with heavy jewelry.  The jewelry has historical purposes beyond the decorative (the cynic in me thinks some crafty jeweler thought these up). The long metal pendants on the ears protect them from the very loud drums; heavy necklaces act to balance the dancers. Belts around the waist support the spinal column. Bells on the feet help to keep the beat, protect the ankles and keep the dancer focused.

The elaborate eye makeup alone must take a chunk of time; the eyes are incredibly important in this dance form. The dances start with a kind of unfolding of the body, beginning with stillness, then a sidelong glance, a neck glissando followed by small slithery movements that end with the feet and the ankle bells ringing in time with the drums. The body is then "alive" and the real dancing begins. 

Before these dancers start, they demonstrate the various movements, gestures and poses that will be used in the performance and they explain what each pose means. By the time the dancing begins you can easily follow the stories. Fabulous.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Kerala Backwaters

Cruising in a house boat on the Kerala backwaters for one and half days was a perfect counterpoint to the prior day in Periyar National Park.  In Alappuzha (formerly Alleppey) we boarded a kettuvallom, a grain barge with a thatched roof and wooden hull, essentially a floating cottage with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a dining/sitting room. The vessels were formerly used to barge grain through the canals.

A sprawling network of colorful canals connect with five lakes and 38 rivers to form a vast watery highway; 900 km of waterways fringe the coast.  The water is brackish and teeming with bird life; the area is compared sometimes to the American bayou. We cruised along from Alappuzha to Kottoyam.
Formerly the main highways of Kerala, the canals are still used by many villagers as their main form of transport. We could understand why as we traveled along in the shade with coconut and cashew trees growing on the banks. Isolated fields could be spotted between the trees where farmers grow cassava, bananas and yams - the same as it's been for eons. But wait, did I see one of those farmers with a cell phone?

Two pleasant men manned our boat - one the cook/host, the other the all-round boatman. They spoke little, but did make sure we noted the abundant bird life. While sipping our Kingfisher beer, we actually got to see the bird skimming along the surface of the water.

Our pictures are fuzzy. Lifted this from

Turned out we saw more than a few Kingfishers; the waters were full of birds perched along the banks, swirling and diving -  heron, terns, parrots and cormorants. Gliding along the still water through patches of water lilies the scene was beautiful.

Meals on these boats are legendary and ours lived up to the reputation. A lovely lunch of grilled pomfret with vegetables was nicely served.  They tried to serve us tea at 4 but we turned it down having just put aside our forks from lunch. Nevertheless a plate of fried bananas and some biscuits appeared. Dinner was a huge repast; breakfast was crepes filled with bananas and coconut, accompanied by watermelon, pineapple, papaya and the ever present flat breads and excellent coffee. We were seriously over-fed. The food in Kerala was excellent - making any study of it or any part of the vast and complex Indian cuisine would take the rest of my life. Instead of spending too much time or effort figuring anything out, I just sat back and ate and enjoyed.

Lest I'm painting too romantic a picture, there are some discomforts to deal with on these houseboats in order to enjoy the watery paradise. As soon as the boat stopped for the night, the mosquitoes moved in (took care of that with the spray), next the heat and humidity became stifling. You choose between sitting outside swatting bugs or sweating inside with the heat. Although the boat was air conditioned, the crew ration the use of the generator because of fuel limitations. Zouzou, who likes icebox temperatures, gave them a little grief and got a concession of an hour or two of half blast; when she got sleepy she retired to the bedroom, turned the thermostat to 16 and conked out. The bedrooms were very comfortable and everyone slept well.

A peaceful interlude in our packed and busy schedule.

Life along the canals

Soaking it up.

Sepia Saturday 170: Coffee Time at Childs

True confession: my father was a ham. He also loved the girls so this picture captured him perfectly. Childs restaurant, one of his favorite haunts for 39 years, closed and this picture of him drinking coffee with a couple of "airline hostesses" at the closing party appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press. Most of the other photos I have of him drinking anything picture him with a glass of whiskey - far more to his taste.

Dad began frequenting Childs in 1921 (he was 22). It closed in 1960.

Once or twice a year my mother dressed me up in my best clothes and Dad took me to Childs, just the two of us. While she was doing my hair she'd run down the protocol -"sit up straight, no fidgeting or kicking under the table, let Dad pull out your chair, no tugging at your underwear, don't suck air through your straw, don't slurp, don't eat too fast, smile at people and say hello, listen to your father". We had chocolate sundaes and something nice to drink. He did the same thing with my sister. I remember these outings as very special - he showed us off to the waitresses and anybody else who was around on a Saturday. 

In the article my father is quoted:

"I don't know where I'll go for coffee after today," mourned F. J. Killeen, summing up the general feeling of older customers.

"I've been coming here for coffee every morning since the restaurant opened in 1921. I'll be lost without Childs."

Following in my father's footsteps during my "regular job" years, I used to stop for coffee at Van de Kamps coffee shop, corner of San Fernando Road and Fletcher Drive. People would come and go at the stool next to "mine" - mine during 6:30 - 7:00 a.m. and I met some interesting people there -  one being the lawyer who defended Charles Manson, Irving Kanareck. But that's another story. 

Enjoy more caffeine soaked nostalgia at  Sepia Saturday

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Melba on his chest

Manoo, our driver, had his wife's name Melba tattooed on his chest. He got the tattoo before his impossibly difficult love-marriage (as opposed to the arranged marriage, greatly preferred) to Melba, one year before the marriage in fact and when his parents found out his father screamed at him, "Are you mad? Shall I take you to an asylum? Or should I burn this abomination off your chest with acid?"

The inking seemed a rash move made under the influence of raging hormones, unrequited love, the   Romeo effect cranked up to ten on the dial.

He fell in love with Melba when he first saw her working in the chemist's shop. She "liked" him which in Indian romance parlance means she would be amenable to marriage -  but her parents wanted nothing to do with him. He worked for a travel agency, no university education, no house, nothing much to offer. For five years he worked on them to convince the family he'd make a good husband - proving himself in every way. Her uncles visited his workplace, his employers were grilled. Her family finally agreed to the union, but kept throwing in conditions which they thought would discourage him: no dowry; no payment for the wedding or engagement; he had to agree to pay for her nursing school education, all of which are obligations usually assumed by the bride's family. For the five year dark period, during the convincing years, he never touched her - but he longed, he burned, he loved. And because he had to do something, anything - he tattooed.

Manoo told me this story as we were sitting together in the van waiting for the others. He glowed when speaking of the love of his life. So alive.

A belt in Bangalore

There is light at the end of the tunnel for India, but it's that of an oncoming train which will run them over. Navot Singh Sidhu

One would think in a country of skinny men Richard could find a belt. He's been holding his khaki pants up with one hand, navigating everything else with the other. Falling-down pants inspire concentration I must say; all the surroundings fade into insignificance when impending exposure of your behind looms ahead.

Happy ending; oh, these awful puns: he found a 34 incher in the Bangalore airport; two colors no less - a reversible; and now he sits contentedly next to me on the short plane ride, pants secure, looking forward to walking around Goa, both hands free to gesture and negotiate. The Bangalore airport incidentally is newish, modern and very like a Western airport.

Bangalore has a few decent looking areas...if you're driving by rapidly and don't look too closely.  "Good enough for a galloping horse at midnight" as they say. On foot it's another matter as we found when we walked to a restaurant .6 miles from our hotel. Exit the beautiful, air-conditioned, squeaky-clean hotel, turn left and bam...the horse ain't galloping and you are surrounded by broken sidewalks littered with various detritus, the most unnerving for sandal wearers being the huge shards of glass. We picked our way past a newspaper/rag hovel crafted by street sleepers, mobs of young stylish men hanging out on street corners, revelers spilling out from noisy clubs or food kiosks, fast moving things in the shadows. Take your choice: eyes down on the disgusting garbage strewn walkway (to prevent slipping on some half-rotted thing or another) or eyes ahead watching the astonishing traffic while the sidewalk stops abruptly then starts again.

Pedestrians do not have a right of way. Lane lines are purely decorative and always ignored.  When entering a busy road from a side street drivers do not stop to check for oncoming traffic or pedestrians. They hit the horn and drive into the flow of traffic. All pavement appears to be fair game (including the so-called pedestrian walkways), left turn lanes from the right side of road are acceptable - you just don't stand a chance on foot. Forward movement at all costs is the name of the game. Above the fray is the constant HORN honking used to indicate your approach, your displeasure with someone’s speed or road position or to simply announce that you are coming and all should be alert. They should sell pedestrian horns....maybe they do.

No wonder Indians do so well in the US. Most of them use buses to get around and the buses are overcrowded and mortally dangerous, rocketing along the potholed mazes of asphalt called roads. At incredibly high speed they blast by; you catch the eyes of the passengers banging around inside hanging on for dear life. To survive the buses in India, you must develop a kind of courage we can barely imagine.

Clinging to Richard's arm I wobbled along with only a couple of near tumbles. Now that his pants are staying up on their own, he can use his arm to hold me up instead. Deborah and Zouzou trudged along behind, always game, never complaining although I heard a gasp as Zouzou experienced a near miss from a turning auto rickshaw .

The restaurant, My Only Place,  turned out to be very good; we placed our orders ten minutes after arrival and an hour later, just as we were ready to give up, the food arrived. The steaks were splendid (we needed a break from Indian food) and worth the wait - an hour is pretty well the standard here. Even so, and even though we're all talkers, the pre-dinner conversation lagged as hunger gnawed and travel exhaustion set in. We've learned to ask for the bill as soon as the food arrives or another thirty minute wait will ensue.

Not exactly "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", but similarly the billboard adverts for opulent apartments rise from steaming garbage heaps in Bangalore. Real estate values are sky-rocketing because of the multitude of IT companies, software companies and call centers. Hoards of people have moved in from villages to work on construction projects. The population is skyrocketing; the infrastructure (really a stretch) lags so far behind that catching up appears impossible.

Do I sound like an ugly American? I'm reminded again by this experience how much we take for granted: our clean and tidy streets; the sidewalk on Main in Fallbrook, toilets that flush and reliable electricity; trash collection and the SPCA; fast food and safe drinking water.

Puducherry, Pondicherry, Pondy

100 miles to Puducherry or Pondicherry from Chennai. We stopped by Mahapalipurma en route to look at the fabulous carvings. I wish we'd had more time scheduled for this wonderful spot, but it was really crowded. Our driver had a connection there who let us stop for a few minutes on the main road, otherwise parking would have been a nightmare.

Our hotel in Pond, Le Dupliex, is lovely - colonial heritage romantic, with all amenities. The town was the setting for the beginning scenes of Life of Pi. We discovered that only one scene of the film was actually filmed in Puducherry, but the director lives there part time. With our local guide, slightly easier to understand than Sugo, we toured the town. Yes, there's some lovely old colonial buildings in the French Quarter but much of the city looked like this.

The vibe here is described in guide books as faded colonial ville, bohemian, vaguely New Age and faintly Old World morphing into an international tourist destination. Hmmm.

Le Dupliex

Lovely courtyard at Le Dupliex

Most interesting was the temple visit - Arulmigu Marakula Vinayagar. It was almost closing time and the priests were rushing everyone through - one would snatch your rupees and the other put a dot on your forehead. The temple is dedicated to Ganesha and a temple elephant, Lakshmi, is chained in the front.

Just around the corner we took a walk through the Aurobindo Ashram, one of the wealthiest in India. Right out of Eat, Pray, Love, we saw plenty of western women dressed in saris, searching for spirituality.

A long line of people were standing in line to walk past the flower festooned tombs of the founders, Sri Aurobindo and a French woman known as the "Mother". The Ashram's teaching is based on a complete method of Integral Yoga that can transform human nature to divine life. As instructed we tarried for a couple of minutes; Zouzou sat down cross-legged and did a little meditating. She felt she could possibly get into it if she hung around. The rest of us were bit uncomfortable - I felt like a gawker.

We walked to dinner a couple of blocks from the hotel. The street was pitch black - no sidewalks. People were squatted all along the road preparing and eating dinner. I stumbled along trying to avoid pot holes, hanging onto Zouzou in the really bad parts. When we arrived at Le Club we realized it was mosquito ridden. Fortunately along with the drinks, they brought us a bottle of mosquito spray which we schmeared all over ourselves. Zouzou, having spent a sleepless night, probably dreaming about the Rue de Faubourg, fell asleep at the table propped up on her elbows. Debra provided more sustenance for the mosquitoes than she got from her food, swatting and scratching. Despite the distractions, the food was good.
Richard, Zouzou, Debra, me

Spinach Travel

India - It's the spinach of travel destinations—you may not always (or ever) enjoy it, but it's probably good for you. In the final reckoning, am I glad that I came here? Oh, absolutely. It's been humbling. It's been edifying. It's been, on several occasions, quite wondrous. It's even been fun, when it hasn't been miserable. Seth Stevenson, Slate magazine, 10/01/04

Ha. Every offering is carried inside in plastic. India is being buried in plastic bags.

Simple stuff...
Sugu, our tiny little guide, met us in the hotel lobby in the morning. Zouzou and Debra could look her in the eye. I felt like a giant towering over the three of them and I could barely hear Sugu because her voice was just as little as she was. Her Indian English was a jumble for me. I could pick out every 4th word, but after an hour of straining I decided to just sit back and enjoy what I could see and worry about details later.

Sugo, our tiny guide

Another pleasant surprise: the van was full of mosquitoes when we got on board. Swatting away at them, the white seat covers were soon dotted with bloody smears.  Manoo, our driver, vowed to get spray for the next day.

Kapaleswar Temple

Figure on temple fascia

After our first day here, Zouzou was harboring thoughts of jumping in a cab to the airport and heading off to Paris, where she usually goes on vacation. We were all exhausted after a day driving through the vicious Chennai traffic visiting the Kapaleswar temple, the Basilica of San Thome* (where the faces of the saints have been replaced with the faces of popular Bollywood stars), Parthasarthi temple complex, Fort St. George, St. Mary's Church, the Government museum. We were overwhelmed by the complexity of Hinduism, the crowds, the heat and the beggars, the contrasts. Quickly you develop "city eyes" (per Salman Rushdie) for your protection.

Rarely have I been so happy to return to the 5-star hotel bubble. We did a cursory rinse off of the day's considerable dust and dirt. The bottoms of our feet were black (shoes have to removed almost everywhere) and even with plenty of handi-wipes and sani spray, it's hard to feel even marginally clean after the "Indian bathroom experience". They range from terrible to horrifying - as bad as anything I've seen around the world. Worst of all is when some toilet wallah dude wakes up from his chair and wants 10 rupees for use of the facilities.

Sugo had a two hour bus ride ahead (pretty average for a Chennai resident) to reach her home after guiding us all day. Makes you think.

Zuzu decided to give it another day or two.

*In the whole world, there are only three churches which have been built over the tomb of an Apostle of Jesus Christ - the Basilica of Saint Peter built over the tomb of St. Peter in Rome, Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built over the tomb of St. James in Spain and Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas in Chennai built over the tomb of St. Thomas. Most Indian Catholics seem to be unaware of the importance of this extraordinary shrine.

A day in Dubai

Interesting facts about Dubai: Tallest Man-Made Structure. Tallest Hotel. Biggest Mall. World’s biggest Aquarium. Second largest man-made Marina. It has even broken the record for being the city with the largest number of people named Mohammed.

We met Z and D for breakfast at 9:00. Early risers, they'd been up since 5 and in the gym for an hour, showered and breakfasted. We arranged to meet again at 11:00 and take the Hop-on-Hop-off bus around the city to see the biggest, tallest stuff. Traffic is terrible in Dubai and we slogged along from place to place. The route passed whiz bang shopping center after whiz bang shopping center. We stopped at the Mall of the Emirates where we watched men and boys have a great time on the artificial ski slopes and sled runs, play around on snow shoes and roll down snowy slopes in giant transparent plastic balls. The walls are painted with Currier and Ives type wintery scenes. The Arabs wear ski jackets over their kandora robes. Unreal.

Last stop was Downtown Dubai and the Dubai Mall. We ate dinner at a water-side restaurant where Debra began with a hubbly-bubbly pipe and merrily puffed on the thing for a while. The food was good; the view and setting spectacular. Sitting in the shadow of the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, we lingered long enough over dinner to see the fountain show in action. As we were late for the last bus, we had to trot through the center, past all the sculpture and the amazing aquarium in order to catch our ride. And past the fabulous shops on Fashion Avenue where each window looked like a little work of art. Although shopping centers are hardly on our radar screens, we were all awe-struck by the splendor of the place. Then we sat in the traffic yet again.

One more item of business before we finished the day; a trip over to a nearby local store to buy a suitcase. The large general merchandise shop was marketing to the working population in Dubai: Philippinos and Indians. We found a decently priced roller-bag to tide Richard over and wheeled it back along the sidewalk to the hotel.

Arriving in Chennai (Madras)

The baggage claim area in Chennai is mildly chaotic. People crowd into the space in front of the baggage belts while boxes, bags and crates tumble down the conveyor and plop on the belt...sometimes. About the half the stuff crashes onto the floor and is heaved back on the belt by the cooperative waiting passengers. I retreated from the dizzying mob to the rear; the man standing next to me fumbled his prized bottle of brandy - oops,it broke on the floor. He was visibly upset and soon joined by three other men, also distraught. The booze splashed all over the place and people were walking through it. The whole place reeked.

Someone abandoned a luggage cart just in front of me. It didn't roll. As carts are in short supply, I watched in amusement as one person after another grabbed the cart with that "Lucky the last cart!" look, only to find out it was a dud. Zouzou started making friends and struck up a conversation with an Emirates employee who told her most of our fellow passengers were workers in Dubai, on leave and returning home to India - thus all the luggage.

For an hour we stood and watched the belt until Zouzou's alligator green Tumi suitcase finally arrived. Sticking out like a sore thumb, it emerged from the dark and rode upright, gleaming and shiny, gliding along surrounded by the baling wire wrapped bags and taped up boxes. It was almost the last piece unloaded and almost as tall as Zouzou. We rolled ourselves out of the gate to be confronted by a wall of heat and humidity and a sea of Indians waving signs; it's dark and hard to see but it looked like at least a hundred signs were being waggled and bobbled in front of us. We started to search and luckily very quickly saw our names; our bags were removed from our custody and we were herded through the throngs to a waiting area. Horns were honking constantly, people shouted, brakes screeched; it was a noise nightmare and my tinnitus roared. We asked our greeter if something had happened. "Why?" he asked, head moving in the famous Indian head waggle, sort of back and forth, up and down, all at the same time.  "All the horns honking!", we replied. He laughed and says, "It's India. We drive with our horns".

So begins our noisy stay in Chennai (formerly Madras), fourth largest city in India.

Big Lots

I stood in line at a cash register at Pic N'Save, oops Big!Lots today to pay for some essential items: Dill Pickle flavored potato chips, a plastic pot, 6 cans of chicken broth. Essential?? Just back from our 15 hour flight home from India, I had to move around in the afternoon or crash and prolong the jet lag. The idea of standing in line is kind of a shock after India where the sight of a bill, the rustle of money or a gesture toward purse or wallet unleashes a frenzy of sellers and offers. Stand in a line to pay?? Never. Vendors press to sell their goods, first with a smile and a dangle (necklace, bracelet, postcards), next with a sad story, finally with guilt ("but you looked at me and I thought you were going to buy.....).

I plan to disgorge my account of this travel in too much detail, but I'm writing this entirely for myself and my travel companions. To any others who elect to suffer through it, I make no apology.

Beginning at the beginning: We left LAX on Emirates, flying business class and using up some of our mucho accumulated miles. Emirates is splendid. The business class seats turn into a flat bed which the flight attendants make up with a mattress when you're ready to sleep. The entertainment system is amazingly varied - I watched a couple of great French films. The food was fine. With the aid of Ambien we conked out for 6 hours each - nothing like unconsciousness to make a flight tolerable.

The airport at Dubai is amazing. Huge, beautifully appointed, very efficient. Young men roam the place wearing T-shirts that say in large letters, "Can I help you?". Richard's suitcase was injured - two wheels mashed and smashed. We half dragged it over to the Emirates claim area and collected $35 in cash for immediate settlement. Fine with us as the suitcase was way past it's prime.

The airport cab line was well-organized and we only waited a couple of minutes before being whisked off in a new Mercedes by a white gloved and capped driver to the Crowne Plaza, only about a 25 minute drive away. The Crowne Plaza was just fine - a bit tired, but the rooms have been recently updated, the service is terrific and at $200 a night, a good value. In Dubai the hotel scene is nothing less than dazzling - fabulous properties and astronomical prices. After we settled in we called Zouzou and Debra who arrived from Germany a couple of hours before us. We arranged to meet the next morning for breakfast at nine.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Short bulletin from Kochi

After two weeks on the road in India and 2000 km. we've adjusted to driving at mad cap speeds with little more than a foot of distance between our van and the object ahead, which could be a truck,motorcycle, mo-ped , bicycle or another van full of terrified tourists. I've stopped applying my imaginary brakes and surrendered all safety concerns to Mamood, our excellent driver, who magically misses pedestrians, dogs, baby carriages, food carts and religious processions by a hair. By a hair!!

Let's see..we've visited temples and then temples and more temples, an ashram, spice plantation, churches, synagogues, museums. We've stayed in luxury hotels (we're in one today), basic hotels, on a houseboat and in a traditional home stay. We've eaten Indian food up the wazoo - what else would you expect? Tonight we eat with Nimi Paul who teaches Kerala cooking classes in her home. 

We've paid one dollar for a meal and just now for lunch we paid $12.00 each for ayurvedic mocktails...lemonade with mint and a slice of cucumber for garnish. Detoxifying they say - I don't feel any less toxic, only lighter in the wallet.

Tomorrow we leave early and fly to Bengalore then drive to Mysore. In a couple of days we'll wash up in Goa to rest and relax for a few days before the long trek back through Dubai and then via Emirates Air, all the way home in one 17 hour flight.