Kerala!

Kerala was a little bit of an exception to my general experience with expectations.  As per what I said about Bangalore, I was a little worried about Kerala, just because my expectations could not have been any higher.  Every single Indian and foreigner I’d ever spoken with about Kerala could not stop singing its praises.  “Beautiful!” “So clean!”  “Lovely people!”  “The best places in India!”  Indians told me it’s referred to as “God’s own country.”  (I later learned this is because the Kerala Tourism Department has made sure to slap that tagline on every single official sign in the state.  How’s that for marketing?)

So I was literally being promised the Garden of Eden.  How could the state live up to such high expectations?  I feared disappointment was inevitable.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Image00021 houseboat waterwaysErin and I arrived in Kerala via night bus (my least favorite form of transportation ever.  Kerala is very developed in many ways, but its roads are definitely not.  We “slept” the whole night in 10-minute snatches in between bone-jangling potholes).  Waking up at sunrise that morning was magical.  I wasn’t thinking, “This is it?”  Instead, all I could think was, “I made it.  I made it.”

Because all those people were right.  Kerala is everything everyone promised it would be: green, lush, beautiful, clean, friendly.  Brilliant green rice paddies, swaying palm fronds, heaps of coconuts, beaming Keralans waving from behind stacks of idlis and vadas.  It IS much cleaner than the rest of India, and I found the people more relaxed and friendlier as well.  And since the state actually does have a very different language from the north — Malayalam is as different from Hindi as it is from English — it often feels like being in another country entirely.

Not to say the state’s perfect.  As mentioned, the roads are hideous, and a lack of infrastructure development means that roads and bridges wash out frequently during monsoon.  And various social and economic problems do plague the state.  Still, it’s got the highest literacy rate in India — something like 90-95% — and I believe one of the highest life expectancies.  Place is doing pretty well.*

Erin and I wasted no time in hitting the top must-do in Kerala: booking a houseboat for an adventure through the backwaters.

Image00038 our houseboat

Image00004 me houseboat

Image00001 erin houseboat

Image00003 houseboat beds

The area around central and southern Kerala’s coast is laced with hundreds of kilometers of canals and rivers that are essentially the highways for thousands of villagers who live among these waters.

From the houseboat, we saw these Keralans just living their daily lives: washing clothes, taking ferries, coming back from school, going fishing.

Image00023 houseboat children ferry

Image00011 laundry houseboat view

 

Image00002 waterways view

Erin and I went for an afternoon swim — the waters are clean and warm — and had an afternoon snack of fried plantains and tea…

Image00026 snack

…then bought some fresh prawns for dinner.

The word “prawn” brings to mind a little pink thing about an inch or two long, yes?

Not in Kerala, apparently:

Our lovely co-captain Abdul Kareem

Our lovely co-captain Abdul Kareem

It really felt like we were about to eat some aliens

It really felt like we were about to eat some aliens

They were delicious.

We also saw some people practicing for August’s Nehru Snake Boat race.  By “some people,” I mean about 80:

Image00034 snake boat longview

Image00035 snake boat closer

Super cool.  They waved to us and our captain threw them some water bottles:

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We got really lucky on the weather — it was sunny all day and only rained a bit at night, when we weren’t trying to sight-see anyway.  And in the evening, Erin taught me a very important life skill: how to play poker!

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Erin’s Colorado playing cards included this Teddy Roosevelt line, which I thought was pretty fitting for Kerala, too:

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*Place also had the first-ever elected Communist government for a while back in the 50s.  Currently, the party in charge isn’t Communist, but they’ve held power on and off for the last few decades, and Communist flags, signs, and demonstrations were everywhere.  Yet the state is still a democracy and private commerce appears to flourish, or at least function at the same level as in the rest of India.  Very interesting place.  I want to read/learn more about it.

Image00018 communist temple

 

 

 

“Fancy”?

Normally it’s China that takes the cake on hilarious signs in English.  Sometimes, though, India can hold its own:

Image00044 hilarious sign

Mysore — in photos

A brief photo swing through the rest of me and Erin’s adventures in Mysore:

Buying some vada (fried lentil flour donuts) at the bazaar:

Image00025 vada vendor

Image00026 vada

Me and the beautiful and fascinating Mysore Palace.  An over-the-top mixture of Anglican and Indian styles, the inside halls are richly decorated with everything from murals on the ceiling to guilded gold doors to tilework with inlaid semi-precious stones:
Image00019 me and mysore palace

There were — why not? — elephant rides going on next to the palace, so Erin and I did one.  It was way fun.  At the risk of stating the obvious, elephants are really, really big.  You feel like you’re at a low flight level from up there.Image00011

The next day, we went to the Mysore Zoo.  It was seriously excellent, a definite standout.  We saw lots of animals…Image00032 Image00034 Image00035 Image00028

As well as some pretty funny and entertaining signs:Image00031
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At the top of Chamundi Hill, overlooking Mysore:
Image00025 me view mysore

Mysore at night:
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Us in Mysore at night :)  In the background is our new friend Ferdinand.  In the foreground are me and Erin’s beers.  The Haywards 5000 was pretty terrible.  The Kingfisher was, well, Kingfisher.Image00041

And then we went to some gardens outside Mysore, and I decided to take an entirely too pretentious pose, considering that that skirt now has holes and I haven’t worn makeup in 3 months:

Image00043 me mysore garden

Mysore — Colors

India is such a wonderfully colorful place.  It’s actually one of the first things I list when Indians ask me what I like about their country: “The COLORS!”  Everything, from clothing to houses to food to landscapes, comes in a wider and brighter range of colors here than at home.

Mysore, a quintessential city in the southern state of Karnataka, was no exception — especially at the markets, where vendors sold huge piles of brightly colored powders to use as paints.

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Down another row were the fruit vendors, with their massive piles of lemons, pomegranates, apples, bananas, mangoes, grapes, pumpkins, squash, jackfruit, pineapples.  Erin and I loved it:

Image00022 erin fruit vendor

From the top of Chamundi Hill overlooking Mysore, where there is a huge temple patronizing the local favorite goddess, Durga, there is a long set of 300 steps leading down to a huge idol of Nandi, Shiva’s bull.  Some Indians making the trek back up were blessing the stairs by thumbing tikkas, spots of the powder used in religious ceremonies and blessings, on every single one of the 300 steps:


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The statue of Nandi himself was, like all idols and shrines in India, garlanded with flowers and covered in colorful pastes:

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And here’s the delicious thali (full meal) that we had several times at a restaurant in central Mysore, where our only plates were banana leaves.  There are a few types of vegetable curry, two kinds of dahl (lentil soup), a few different curds (yogurts and buttermilk), and rasam, a thin spicy soup.

Image00038 thali banana leafThese were the chutneys and condiments on the side: coconut chutney, Indian pickles, some orange powder whose name I don’t know but which was very tasty, and plain old salt.

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Bangalangalangalore

(First: I should note that my blog has not been in sync with my actual location for weeks.  I’m about 1.5-2 weeks behind at this point; I was in Bangalore from July 18-20.  Currently I’m in the wonderful, wonderful state of Kerala and due to leave India [sad] in just 4 days, on Aug. 4.  I’m in a lovely hill station called Munnar traipsing around with a pair of French tourists, getting rained on and seeing tons of spice and tea plantations.)

It’s amazing how much your impression of a place depends on your expectations.  If you’re promised a 5 star hotel and you get Motel 8, you’re gonna be disappointed.

Conversely, I had pretty low expectations for Bangalore — based on Indians’ and foreigners’ descriptions, I imagined it to be a clean but sterile and uninteresting place.

Which is why I enjoyed it a lot.  Because in some ways, it was indeed a little sterile.  In many other ways, however, it was not.

For example, there was a ton of secular public art — something that, apart from large gold-plated statues of Gandhi, you don’t see much of in India:

Image00013 public art

Image00012 friendship point art

Image00009 statue

For having a reputation as the software/IT capital of Asia, Bangalore is also surprisingly green.  I asked a Mumbaiker on the train ride down what she thinks the difference is between Mumbai and Bangalore.  She replied, “More trees in Bangalore.”  She was absolutely right.  The heart of the city is a wonderfully kept collection of lush green spaces called Cubbon Park:

Image00021 cubbon park bamboo

Image00024 cubbon park boat

Cubbon Park is studded with a good set of museums, including an endearing 40-tank aquarium:

Image00017 aquarium

Downtown there was also a hoppin’ bazaar where I bought some vada, or fried donuts:

Image00025 vada vendor

Image00026 vada

Like all of India, Bangalore is a mishmash of the commercial and the spiritual.  Near the bazaar, there was a mosque sporting a Coca-Cola advertisement:

Image00031 mosque and coke

And a few kilometers away, there was a collection of temples that housed one of the largest Nandi (Shiva’s bull) statues in all of India:

Image00034 big bull temple

Of course, my adventures in Bangalore were improved by the arrival of my friend Erin from DC.  We went on an adventure to a great art museum at a university…

Image00001 Erin statue

Image00037 elephant outside art gallery…and then had some hilarious adventures driving around Bangalore with a funny rickshaw driver named Joseph, who had totally decked out his rickshaw and drove us around blasting Venga Boys.  It was comedic gold.

Image00003 erin trippy cab Image00005 me trippy cab

 

 

 

 

And Now Here’s A Monkey Chugging Soda

This little guy jacked this Fanta from a 10-year-old boy who was walking up the path on Elephanta Island (near Mumbai).  Place is infested with monkeys.

The best part is that in between chugging the soda, the monkey stopped to burp a few times.  (I.e., the second picture.)  Awesome.

Image00057 monkey soda steal

Image00058 monkey soda burp

Mumbai — Dharavi

Image00006 Dharavi

“Slum tourism is a polarizing subject,” concludes the Lonely Planet* sidebar on Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai (and, reportedly, Asia).  And this is true: I met many travelers who rattle off Dharavi as just another bullet point on their Mumbai itinerary, while I met others who, on hearing the name, frowned and said, “I don’t like slum tourism.”

I do understand the squeamishness.  “Slum tourism” conjures up the image of a busload of fat white tourists trundling through Third World shantytowns, cameras poised, ready to capture a sighting of the rare and elusive Impoverished Child trundling through the gutter in rags.  Cringe.

On the other hand, what’s the alternative?  Should rich people then avoid seeing where poor people live — avert their eyes and stay away?  No, I don’t really believe in that.  Besides, would I feel weird if a limo pulled up to my old house in the not-so-shiny neighborhood of Petworth and a few well-dressed people started taking pictures?  Not really.  I’d just be curious what the story was.

Besides, my bottom line is that I like to explore and see new things.  I wanted to see Dharavi, so I went there.  I didn’t spend a lot of time fretting about the moral implications of going to say hello to Mumbaikers who live in a slum.

Dharavi is not like any other slum I’ve seen before.  It’s much cleaner and more organized, with central roads, food shops, and fruit stalls just like most other Indian towns.  It’s more like a city within a city, a cluster of ramshackle buildings on unplanned streets that are nonetheless not significantly dirtier than your average street in, say, Old Delhi.  The word “slum” conjures up images of raw sewage plopping into rivers, and we did indeed see that on our way into Dharavi.

But “slum” rarely invokes the image of factories, industry, and massive economic output.  That, however, is what we saw much more of in Dharavi.

Image00009 Dharavi sewing

It turns out Dharavi is packed with mini-factories working on a huge range of industries: recycling old candy wrappers, stitching jean pockets, and baking pastries.  Economic activity in Dharavi is estimated to turn around as much as $650 million a year.

Image00010 Dharavi sewing close

One of my new friends on a street in Dharavi

One of my new friends on a street in Dharavi

And how did Dharavians themselves feel about us?  Well, they were definitely curious about us — lots of staring as we walked by.  But again, not more staring than you’d experience in Old Delhi (or New Delhi, or Agra, or Kolkata, or virtually anywhere in north India).  Faces sometimes broke into smiles when I greeted them with “Namaste”; the smiles turned into laughs of surprise if I went further with, “Aap log kaise hain?” (“How are all of you doing?”)  If no one was exactly rolling out the welcome mat — because they were too busy working — no one was giving us the stink eye and telling us to get lost.

The strangest thing we saw in Dharavi, actually, was on Blue Dog Street.  This name is not a euphemism.  There are two dogs who live on this street who have been at the wrong end of a dye plant somewhere in Dharavi.

Image00016 blue dogs Image00018 blue dog

Super bizarre.

I only saw a tiny corner of Dharavi — over 1 million people live there — so I can’t say what life is like for everyone who lives there.  The people I saw, however, mostly seemed to be your average lower-middle class Indians: hard-working, busy at their jobs, enjoy tea breaks and paan (chewing tobacco), etc.

On the other hand.  I don’t want to glorify or romanticize poverty.  Everyone lives and works in very tiny spaces and the hygiene — hundreds of people reportedly sometimes share a single toilet — is appalling.  I started reading a book written by some rich Indians called Poor Little Rich Slum that I had to put down because it was just endless pablum about how wonderful and hard-working people in Dharavi are, and how their lack of material possessions didn’t prevent them from being rich in spirit, blah blah blah.  I notice the authors didn’t rush to quit their lucrative office jobs to move to a Dharavi shanty.  I’ve met a lot of poor people in India, and while it’s true that a person really doesn’t need about half of what your average American owns, most poor people live about one illness or natural disaster away from total bankruptcy.  I haven’t met anyone yet who enjoys that feeling.

* Fellow backpackers: I am sorry to report that the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet guide to India, which is so popular that travelers of all nationalities jokingly refer to it as “the Bible,” has let me down on multiple occasions.  For example, it cheerfully directed me to a hotel in Kolkata that was so infested with bedbugs that after leaving, I spent an hour picking them out of my luggage.  Shudder.  Use Trip Advisor.