Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lucknow to Kanpur

"It's not hot here. It's crazy."

This is what a Spanish tourist told Yann and Emilie in Lucknow. And he was right. When Antonia stepped off the plane in Lucknow she could feel scorching hot air blowing on her from the engine. Then she tried to step out of the way of this firey jetstream, and realized that this is just how the air is here. It was 47 degrees. There is only hot water running in our hotels, not cold, because the water tanks are heated by the sun. Our air conditioned hotels are a great respite, although today we measured the temperature inside our room and it was around the mid-30s. This is heaven to us.

We had one full day in Lucknow to enjoy this capital of Uttar Pradesh and see as many sights as we could manage while we were sweltering. We saw the Lucknow Residency, which are the ruins of the site of the 1857 Siege during the Uprising/First War of Independence (depending on your perspective). You can still see the bullet and cannon ball holes where the local forces tried to drive out the British supporters held hostage there for five months.

We went to the Bara Imbara, which is a massive tomb built in the 18th century. The best part was a labyrinth that led us to the top of the building for a panoramic view of the city and many of its beautiful gates and mosques. We had to remove our shoes before entering, and the heat forced us to stay on the most shaded areas, since the unshaded ones were like hot coals to our bare feet. We played a game of 'rock/paper/scissors' to determine who had to cross the wide, sunbaked expanse of the roof of the tomb for a photo op. Of course Antonia lost, so she sprinted over and back trying to keep her feet above ground as much as possible.
We also saw the highest clocktower in India, although it didn't keep time, and wandered around the old city to see huge gates and more sights. The Chota Imbara has on its grounds two models of the Taj Mahal, each bigger than a house, and inside is a large and quirky chandelier museum. We also saw the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in the city.

We loved Lucknow. It was like how we pictured India before we came; monkeys living on buildings and electrical wires, cows decorated in flowers wandering the streets, alleys lined with paneer and jalebi sellers, crazy traffic, and frequent power outages. Beautiful and insane. Maybe the weirdest part was what an oddity we were to the locals. Wherever we went, we were stared at. People would want to shake our hands and have their picture taken with us, sometimes running after us to get the chance. Although we couldn't quite understand their interest in us, they were very sweet. While we were riding downtown in a cycle-rickshaw, almost on parade, people would shout "welcome to India!" as we went by. In fact, we just had to take a break from writing to pose for pictures with the owner of this internet cafe.

Yesterday we took a bus to Jitendra's hometown, Kanpur, where everyone is very busy and excited with wedding preparations. Jitendra and his family are very generously putting us up in a fancy hotel where we have been relaxing in the AC and watching CNN and Wimbledon in between outings to meet his lovely relatives. It has been so nice to spend time with his family instead of being only backpackers. After checking into the hotel we went to the tailor to get James and Yann fitted for suits, and to order another outfit, all of which is being made especially for them. Altogether the boys will have three outfits and have been very busy shopping. Emilie and Antonia only have two outfits and everything is being arranged by Jitendra's mother, so they can relax a little more. Wedding activities will begin on Monday and last until Thursday. We got some details yesterday and all that we will say now is that it is going to be quite a party. The first instruction that we received for the final wedding day: "9 am to 4 pm - rest as much as possible." We soon discovered why. As Jitendra was listing the events, we kept anticipating a change of clothing. "Not yet," he kept saying, even though his schedule was getting past midnight. It turns out that we have a couple of changes to do in the wee hours, and the celebrations will not end until sunrise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


We have spent the past two days in the paradise of the canal village of Alleppey, Kerala, dubbed the 'Venice of the East.' Or, at least we have decided that it would be paradise if it weren't for the mosquitoes. We took the train from Trivandrum, which made Alleppey feel even more charming and relaxing by comparison. After dodging the schemes of some very sneaky rickshaw drivers seeking commission from hotels, we found a lovely spot to spend the night. The Gowri guesthouse is on a shady, quiet piece of land with chickens and three very hilarious geese running around. Our independent little cottage had a beautiful outdoor bathroom: four walls, no roof, and some trees next to the toilet. Rather, Antonia thought that it was beautiful and James cursed the mosquitoes that joined in on his shower.

The next day we set out on our houseboat ride. This is one of the most luxurious things that we have ever done, and it was strange to have our own private crew of three people for the twenty-four hours, but it really was wonderful. Our boat was a floating palace, with an outdoor dining area, upper observation deck, bedroom, and the only hot shower we will likely use for weeks. Shoreline villages passed us as we drifted by, we watched people wash their laundry and dishes in the waterways, and exchanged waves. For lunch the boat pulled into shore and our chef promptly leapt out of the boat and cut off some banana leaves that were then used for our plates. The traditional Keralan food was served to us in very large amounts and it just kept coming. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the upper deck, lounging in the chairs or on a shaded bed when the sun was too much for us, all the while watching some of the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen go by. Our chef brought us a snack of fried bananas. We had to laugh at the amount of pampering that we received. The only negative was the swarm of mosquitoes that attacked us while we were eating our dinner, which caused us to eat as quickly as possible while swatting each other, "okay, two more bites and we can go inside, hurry up!" It's funny now, but wasn't then. But this was only a small irritation in an otherwise sublime day. We fell asleep to a wonderful, rainless thunder and lightning show.

Antonia had hoped to ease her conscience about this bourgeois activity a little by befriending the crew and trying to close the obvious social gap that existed between them and us. This didn't really work; only one of the crew spoke much English and they declined our invitation to join us for lunch. Antonia tried to simply enjoy this rare experience but feared that she had come to the oldest freely-elected Marxist state in the world only to be waited on.

This morning we had another huge meal on the water, this time while moving back to port, so thankfully the mosquitoes couldn't keep up. We reluctantly left our floating palace and heading for the train station, where we booked a train to Kochi in order to catch our flight back up north tomorrow morning. We are getting to be quite proficient and comfortable with the Indian railway system, if we do say so ourselves. Today we wandered around Ernakulam, the mainland and more metropolitan part of Kochi, and now we need to go to bed because we will get up before 5 am to catch our flight. Tomorrow we will meet up with Emilie and Yann in Lucknow.

We have been very lucky with the weather in Kerala. It rains a little in the morning and then clears up to a sunny and tolerable temperature, if a little humid. This ends tomorrow; we head back to 44 degree weather!

Saturday, June 20, 2009


We figured out how to ride the train! Okay, well it was made easier by the fact that our friend Pallavi booked our first round of tickets. We found our car number, found our seats, and found someone sleeping in them! After he gladly moved for us we struck up a conversation with the man sitting beside us. He told us a lot about his views on India and Kerala but apparently wasn't being patriotic enough for the man who was sleeping earlier. An argument between these two men broke out that we could only understand snippets of but apparently the sleeping man didn't like the fact that the other man was criticizing India and was telling him to "be Indian!" It was uncomfortable for us; we could tell that we were the subject of the argument but we couldn't understand it since it was carried out in either Hindi or Malayalam or both, we couldn't tell. They were both nice, however, and after tensions relieved we continued with our conversation. Once the sleeping man left the other man told us his views on life and honesty, and soon we were in Thiruvananthapuram, or Trivandrum for short.

It was quite hard to find a hotel. We think it is because the Kerala International Documentary and Short Film Festival is in town. The only hotel room we were able to procure was one with three beds! It was clean at least so we took it. We had dinner and tried to find a room for the next day with the right number of beds. We checked out a place called Kukie's Holiday Inn which was recommended by our guide book and a rickshaw driver upon our arrival. The employee of the inn was gracious enough to show us a possible room which came equipped with a double bed, private bathroom, and cockroaches. Needless to say we stuck with the three beds.

The next day we woke up, went for breakfast, and unsuccessfully tried to take a bus to the Neyyar Dam Sanctuary. The Neyyar Dam Sanctuary is a wildlife refuge built around an idyllic lake that was created by the 1964 Neyyar Dam about 30km north of town. We were able to figure out that a bus to the Neyyar Dam did indeed leave from the station we were at but unfortunately were not able to figure out which one it was since the signs were all in Malayalam and no one understood us. Plan B: hire a rickshaw.

We took the rickshaw to the elephant rehabilitation centre inside of the sanctuary. Having been to a similar place in Thailand, Antonia was expecting a large operation with guides able to tell us what the centre was about. Instead we were the only tourists at the place and it was a significantly smaller operation. No one spoke very much English or could tell us much about the centre. The conversation went something like this:
-"elephant ride?"
-"yes please"
-"that's okay"
After throwing a blanket over the elephant and leading us up a staircase, the full elephant riding instructions were "get on!" Riding the elephant was amazing. It was huge and lumbering and would stop every once in a while to pull branches off of trees to eat which sprayed us with recently fallen rain. After the ride we got to pet and touch the elephant while they were instructed to wrap their trunks around us and rest them on our heads.

Before we left we were able to pet a five year old elephant, very cute! We also got to take some photos of a seventy-five year old elephant and were instructed "no touch!" We weren't about to, it was huge and regal with long tusks.

On our way back to the main part of the sanctuary our rickshaw got stuck in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere. For a second we wondered how we were going to get back but luckily after several attempts at starting the engine our driver was successful.

At the sanctuary we took a boat ride around the lake and were able to see monkeys, lions and owls. The neatest part about the ride was hearing the enourmous roar of the lions all through the park.

Today we went to the zoological gardens and museums of Kerala. It was a nice relaxing getaway from the bustle of downtown Trivandrum. At the zoo there were zebras, alligators, lions, elephants, tigers, rhinoserous, pelicans, cobras, pythons, giraffes, leopards and lots more. Our favourites were the sloth bear and the hippos. Next we went to the Napier museum inside the gardens which was inside a gorgeous building. The museum contained ancient Hindu and Buddhist artifacts.

We are among the only tourists that we have seen in Trivandrum, and we get a lot of stares and children are sometimes excited to see us, sometimes scared. We have tried to strike up conversations with local people and have noticed that everyone addresses James, never Antonia, and he is expected to order our meals and pay for them. Even getting to know our friends on the train, Antonia was never asked anything about herself. When we introduce ourselves, separately, using our first names, we end up being refered to simply as 'Mr. and Mrs. James.' It feels quite strange, but Antonia will try to stomach it for this leg of the trip, and hopes that things will be a little different in areas where tourists aren't quite such a novelty.

Trivandrum has been the most difficult place that we have travelled so far; dodging the traffic has been a feat in itself and our plans are determined by where there might be a safe place to cross the street. Where elsewhere we have had to dodge traffic, cows and goats, here we have to watch out for traffic, rats (dead or alive) and cockroaches. We've had a good time, especially escaping the insanity to go to the zoo and the sanctuary, but we are looking forward to heading toward Alleppey tomorrow, which should be quite a bit more laid back, and where we will hopefully have our much-anticipated houseboat ride.

Oh, and we can't believe that we thought $2,50 for two dinners was a good deal. Here, we have been consistently eating delicious food for around $1,25 for two complete meals. And (knock on wood!) no Delhi belly yet!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Delhi to Kochi

We're typing this from our beautiful guesthouse in Kochi, Kerala. It used to be Vasco de Gama's mansion, and apparently he died here, so if we're visited in the night by any Portuguese explorer ghosts we'll know why.

Here's what's happened so far: arriving in Delhi was a hot, sandy experience. After nearly 22 hours of travelling we were pelted wide awake when we stepped off the plane to high, warm winds and sand in our mouth and eyes. It was hot, yes, but the wind made it bearable. The next morning, however, we were definitely hot on our autorickshaw ride to meet Leslie's friend Pallavi in a market in South Delhi. The ride itself was actually one of the amazing things that we have done so far, only because India smacked us in the face. I can't fully describe it, but it was a combination of the insane traffic, the heat, and the sheer number of people that left us completely dumbstruck.

Small children would come up to us whenever we stopped at a light, making signs that they were hungry and pointing out wounds for us to see. I don't even know what to say about that...

The market was a combination of a dusty, cow-filled bustle and air-conditioned, security-guarded extravagance. We wandered around for awhile, our favourite things being the cows that were everywhere, especially sitting between parked cars. One parked car, one parked cow, one parked car, etc...When we met Pallavi we were already exhausted from heat and culture shock, and then she informed us that we were so lucky, because it was only 33 today, and it has been 43 all week long! I couldn't imagine, at the time, trying to see Delhi with ten more degress hitting us, although we got a better idea when we travelled to the Bahai Lotus Temple after lunch, and burnt the soles of our feet on its stone steps, the heat approaching 40.

Since we were all nearly completely exhausted - even Pallavi, who is from Delhi - Pallavi took us to Dilli-Haat, a shady and quiet market where artisans from all over the country come to display their work. I bought a scarf to protect me from the sun, and we sat under a tree drinking fanta and watching stray puppies play in the sand. All we could do after that was stop at McDonald's, on Pallavi's recommendation, to bring home two McVeggie burgers, made with potatoes and mixed vegetables (no beef burgers at McDonald's in India, of course!)

This morning we left on a flight for Kochi, and we had a dangerous run-in with the famous Indian head 'wobble.' Indians often make a motion with their heads that is neither a nod nor a shake, but sort of a sideways nod. The best way we can explain it is if we North Americans were making a gesture to indicate that we were undecided. In India, it can mean 'yes,' 'no,' or 'maybe,' depending on some subtlety that we have yet to figure out. So, you can imagine our dismay when the soldier at the entrance to the airport, armed with some sort of scary gun, handed back our tickets and passports and simply did the head wobble. After a moment of hesitation, we proceeded cautiously through the door, which is apparently what he meant for us to do. Whew.

We landed in Kochi to a 'downright bearable' (James' words upon arrival), though very humid, 28 degrees. Kerala is so different from Delhi, it is the jungle to Delhi's desert. It's full of beautiful, old cantilever fishing vessels and it's much more relaxed. Kochi is an island town with strong Portuguese and Dutch colonial roots. It poured a bit during our long taxi ride, but we had dry-ish (it seems like there is no 'dry' here, because of the humidity, at least at this time of year) conditions for our jaunt out to see the Dutch Palace, originally built in 1555 by the Portuguese as a 'gift' in return for a temple that they previously destroyed, and repaired by the Dutch when they took over the conquest of Kerala from the Portuguese. It is full of Keralan history, as well as beautiful Hindu murals dating from the original construction. On our way back we stopped for dinner at a small vegetarian restaurant that fed us delicious food for a great price. Two masala dosas + two pop = $2.50 total!

We continued home to our guesthouse through goat-filled, dusty lanes, dodging traffic, and upon arrival James promptly fell asleep while Antonia sat on our balcony overlooking the Arabian Sea.

We're exhausted but happy! We love Kerala!