India, Sri Lanka and a lil' bit of Nepal

Trip Start Jul 16, 2004
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Trip End Jun 16, 2005


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Friday, October 29, 2004

Into India
Oct 29, 2004

With only one day to spare on my Nepal visa I'm officially over the border and into India.

Right now I'm in a small north India town waiting for an 11:30pm train to Varanasi. It's been a long day and it's only getting longer. From a jeep (15 min), to a bus (5 hr), to a jeep (10 min), to a rickshaw (5 min), to a an over-crowded jeep (1 hr until it broke down) to another jeep which was even more crowded (1 hr), to the train station awaiting our departure. I met a gal from Korea on the first bus so we are working our way through the travel kinks together. Luckily we are both enjoying the journey.

My last few days in Nepal - Chitwan Park - were pure magic. I went on an elephant safari, a night jungle walk for Rhino viewing, and my favorite of all - swimming with an elephant during it's daily bath ritual. What a site! And what fun. Wait until I upload those photos!

Well, I can't write for long because I have to continue my journey to Varanasi. Will write more soon...




Varanasi - India
Oct 31, 2004


I thought it would be clear sailing between my last e-mail (as I waited for a train) and Varanasi but I was wrong. After a four hour train delay...and then another four hour delay...we finally figured out that our train was cancelled. Then, when we went to try to get a ticket for the next train we realized that the quest was useless and worked our way into a jeep bound for a town which sounded something like "Barrel Guns" where we were told to switch to a local bus. There is a ton more to this story including a dubious jeep driver who pocketed a bit of our money, an 8 hour bus journey, an overnight on the train station floor, and multiple modes of transportation. I felt like Sanur and I were the losing team on the TV show "The Amazing Race"! Everything we did to try to get to Varanasi seemed to lead us in the wrong direction.

But, 30+ hours later we are here in Varanasi and what a crazy, strange, disorienting city it is. Varanasi's principal attraction is the string of ghats that line the Ganges. The ghats are used for bathing in the holy river, washing clothes, fishing, and most importantly for cremations. The Ganges is considered to be one of the holiest places in India so pilgrims come from all over the country. It's also an auspicious place to die since expiring here is supposed to offer liberation from the cycle of birth and death of the Hindu religioun. Thus, guaranteeing an immediate place in Nirvana. Even knowing all that, it's hard to grasp this city. It's not odd to see a body, wrapped in bright cloth, being carried on a stretcher down the narrow alleyways to the river for cremation. And there is a line of bodies at the burning ghats waiting for their turn for cremation. I tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid the burning ghats today but was witness to almost half a dozen bodies being burned on the wooden platforms. But, worst of all, was seeing two men being rowed out into the river to drop a small child, wrapped in white cloth (all except one sad foot), to the bottom of the Ganges. Children, women who are pregnant, people killed by a snake, holy priests, and those with certain diseases aren't burned, but merely dumped in the water attached to a rock or brick. I couldn't help but cry for the child.

I'm still downloading the rest of this city. My mind simply cannot grasp it. Death is everywhere, yet it's the holiest, most amazing city. I'm going to sit at the guest house tonight and just try to get my head around it as I watch the sun set over the Ganges.

I doubt I'll have much access to e-mail in the next few weeks but please keep checking in.




Chitwan Park - Nepal (entry out of order)
Nov 4, 2004

Chitwan Park was a wonderful way to end the Nepal part of my journey. The park, 5 hours from Kathmandu and 5 hours from the Indian border, was an unexpected highlight of the trip. I quickly learned that Chitwan is a magical place with day hikes, cultural programs, amazing people, night-time jungle safaris, a full-moon (bonus), elephant rides, and even the spontanious opportunity to share a bath with the elephants in the nearby river.

The elephant ride was unbelievable - I think I still have some of the bruises to remind me of the ride. The elephant 'driver', speaking NO english, was on a mission to get us close to the Rhinos. That meant going over trees, into rivers, through jungle - bouncing up and down on a little platform on the elephants back. Not fun. There were four of us on board but I, being the smallest, seemed to take the brunt of the twigs in the face, thorns scratching my ankles, and collisions with trees. I'll say it again - not fun! But we did manage to see the Rhinos, so mission accomplished.

The other highlight of Chitwan was the the night safari. It started out as a walk along the riverbed with two Nepalis (and a german gal) but ended up being a 3 hour trek into the local village where we stumbled upon two large Rhinos grazing in the rice fields. It was 10pm so the entire village was sleeping - but had to be awoken to help scare the rhinos away and save the crops.

Of all of the wonderful experiences and people in Chitwan Park, the most unbelievable of all was bath-time! The elephant owners ride the elephants to the river and scrub them down for their daily bath. If you are lucky (and offer a small tip to the owner) you can share in the daily ritual. See photo.



Agra, India
Nov 7, 2004

India India India. What can I say? I'm so overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds, the smells and the people that I now have writer's block. I could write continuously, for hours, and never capture even one minute of this amazing, crazy, chaotic, colorful country.

AGRA, INDIA: Where else in the world can you watch the sun set from the roof of your guest house, with the Taj Mahal dominating the skyline? And where else would an Indian TV crew (for Singapore TV) set up their gear right next to you, to film that sunset? And where else would that TV crew end up joining you for dinner?!

ORCHA, INDIA: Where else would you meet a young child near an abandoned castle who brings you home to meet her entire family - and before you know it you are dancing in the kitchen with what seems like the entire village? And where else would two young gals (twins) teach you to play cricket in a rundown fortress? And where else would the twin's uncle decide that he wanted another wife?! You!

ORCHA, INDIA: Where else would you sit on the steps of a 17th century Shiva Temple sipping chai tea with an old Sadhu (holy man)? Someone you had met the day before, and communicated with via gestures and smiles. Yet, somehow a friendship grew and 24 hours later you are once again on the stoop of his 17th century home (temple) sipping Chai?

THE TRAINS, INDIA: Ohmygod! The full flavor of India can be found in the train stations and on the trains. The stations are a haven for the homeless at night so you need to pick your walking path carefully for any trains after 8pm. There are hundreds of people sprawled out all over the platform - sleeping contently on the dirty floor; cows and water buffalo walking amongst them. Men, women, children wrapped in blankets and sarongs, so used to the noise and the chaos that they seem to sleep contently even as the trains scream by.

Trains are the major mode of transportation here, so it's not unlikely to meet someone (or be someone) who is on a 40 hour journey. Forty hours on a train you ask?! It's not easy. They have sleeper cars which fit 8 people to a small space (that's 88 people to one carraige). Along one side there are two sets of beds, facing each other, three levels high each. The top bunk hangs from the ceiling. The bottom bunk is 1 1/2 foot off the floor, and the middle bunk converts the entire space to/from beds to seats. The concept works if all three people from one set of 'bunks' wants to sit, sleep, stand at the same time! Along the other set of windows are two more bunks, which face the VERY busy aisle. At 5:00 a.m. the 'salesmen' start their pitch walking up and down the aisles screaming "chai" "chai" "chai". Their objective is to wake you up and urge you to want chai tea. If you are lucky enough to sleep through "chai men", there are plenty of other "aisle people" to contend with. Those selling popcorn, those selling makeshift toothbrushes (twigs), those selling food of every type imaginable, those shining shoes, and finally, those begging for a spare rupee ($) or two. There is a lot of life and activity in those small aisles, and not a lot of sleeping. Don't even ask about the bathrooms!

Right now I'm in Agra. It's not quaint by any means, but I've managed to have some 'genuine' experiences and meet some wonderful people. I hired a trishaw driver to take me around Agra for the day and it made my trip worry-free, relaxing, and ultra-productive. Alam drives me around, from site to site, in a 3 wheel, motorized, contraption they call a tri-shaw (he calls his a helicopter). Since he knows Agra inside and out he seems to be worth every penny of the 250 ruppees ($6) we've agreed to for 2 days of touring! And I get to feel like a princess - chauffeur and all!

For those of you who warned me about India and all of it's challenges...THANK YOU. I've definetly had to put my sense of humour to a test.

And to those of you who said I would love it...BINGO! But, it's not just the monuments and the castles and the temples - it's the people and the adventures around every corner. I just hope my string of good luck continues...




Jaipur & Pushkar, India
Nov 12, 2004


The bewitching and touristy little town of Pushkar prepares for the world famous "Camel Fair", as it celebrates Diwali - the happiest and noisiest festival on the Hindu calendar. They call Diwali the Hindu version of Christmas but right now it sounds more like Independence Day with all of the loud fireworks echoing off of the nearby hills. It's nighttime here and oil lamps have been lit around all sides of the small lake in the center of town. All of the rooftops and side streets are lined with small lights or oil lamps. And Indian sweets (and fireworks) are being sold on every corner. It's a fascinating, and VERY loud festival.

There are (too) many tourists here in Pushkar. Part of the town feels like mini-Israel, and other parts like mini-Paris. I have yet to find little America, but did run into a fellow New Yorker at the Alka Guest House where I'm staying! That's the first American I've met since crossing the border from Nepal.

Anyway, here in little Israel (hello Shai)...I mean Pushkar...all there is to do is shop, eat and explore the town. I'm trying to focus on the latter but it's difficult with all of the beautiful and cheap blouses, bags and silver jewelry. And all of the delicious, and creative food - which is strictly vegetarian since Pushkar is a very holy pilgrimage site for Hindus.

Even though Pushkar is a quaint town that you can quickly get your arms around, the ratio of tourists to locals makes it feel a bit like Disneyland. Shops selling everything from clothing to jewelry to food to holiday paraphanelia to sweets to bags to books to postcards all vie for your attention. It gets overwhelming pretty quickly. On top of that you have the constant noise of firecrackers and m-80s exploding in the street for the Diwali celebration...I think I need a vacation!

It's ironic, but I felt more at home in the big city of Jaipur than here in Pushkar. Jaipur felt like a home away from home because the Singh family, who owns the guest house, was so wam and friendly that my one night stay quickly turned into three nights, and my address book quickly filled up with new friends.

The highlight of my trip to Jaipur was my visit to Raj Mandir Cinema for my first ever Hindi film. I had two "dates" to the cinema - Raj and Frainy. They not only accompanied me to the movie but made me feel at home at the guest house where we quickly became friends. From sharing morning tea with them, to discussing Indian culture, to dinners, we got along fabulously and had fun learning about our different cultures. But, I have to admit I'm still having a hard time grasping the concept of an arranged marriage!

Back to the movie...The movie called "Dhoom" was in Hindi, without subtitles, but it was easy to follow. A motorcycle gang of four robbers vs. a policeman. Now throw in some random singing and dance scenes and you have the movie "Dhoom". Tickets to the show cost 55 rupees ($1.20) and the opulent cinema resembled the more beautiful theatres you find on Broadway. Assigned seating, theatre-style seats, a 10 minute intermission, popcorn, soda. It was a nice cross between a movie and a broadway show, and all for $1.20! Not bad for my first Bollywood movie. I think I'm hooked!

Yesterday I took the bus from Jaipur to Pushkar along with my friend Raj who was travelling home for Diwali to see his parents. As we parted ways in Ajmer, his hometown, I realized the one thing I hate most about world travel is saying "good bye" or "see you again" to people I meet along the way.

Happy Diwali to all!




Jaisalmer - India
Nov 16, 2004

Right now I'm in Jaisalmer, India, which is as close to the Pakistan border as I ever want to get. Desert surrounds us for miles and miles, but the town itself is like a giant sandcastle. Twenty five percent of Jaisalmer is within the fort/castle walls and my guest house is right in the middle of it! The town is beautiful with winding streets, gorgeous carved temples, shops, bazaars and views of the desert from the fort walls. It's like living in a story book.

I've explored the town from top to bottom and plan to leave tomorrow on a 12 hour bus ride to Udaipur. I really enjoyed Jaisalmer but...I failed to get the little rest and relaxation that I craved. Every time I stepped outside of the guest house I had to contend with locals (and indian tourists) asking "where are you from" "what is your name" "how long you in India" "first time India?" etc. etc. At first it seemed like it was just a ploy to get me into their little shops, but, by Jaisalmer I realized that it was everybody. Indians in museums, on the street, young, old, boys, girls, families, indian tourists...and they all wanted to shake my hand or have their photo taken with me.

I started to wonder if I resembled a famous Indian movie star or celebrity but was quickly enlightened by another female traveller, who was having a similar experience, that many Indians simply haven't seen foreigners before. So, rather than let the handshakes bother me today (it can get tiresome and annoying) I started to count them. Between 10:00am and 2:00pm there were twenty-one unavoidable handshakes, one photo, and one pinch on the cheek by a young girl. I couldn't even begin to count the number of people that simply talk to you as you walk by. Usually it's the locals, so it's safest (unfortunately) to keep on walking. The rule is "anyone who approaches you is suspect".

I'll play the counting game again tomorrow. It seems to be the only way to tolerate the absurdity of it all! And, maybe, one day I'll even count the number of people who simply stare at foreigners.

Next stop...Udaipur. The counting game continues.




Northern India Recap
Nov 21, 2004

Type-o's and all...Like a moth to flame I will probably spend the rest of my life thinking of, and returning to, India. I'm attracted by it's glow and it's energy but it inevitably will burn me and I'll turn away - if just for a moment. There are images of India that stick in my mind and effect me. India is not just gorgeous intricately carved castles, temples, havelis (old homes). Nor is it just ancient artwrok, stone carvings and ghats. It's also the caste system, arranged marriages, cremations, poverty, cows/pigs/buffalo roaming the streets, children begging for food. It's hundreds of people seeking shelter every night on the dirty floor of the train station. It's ancient ladies with no shoes begging for a rupee or something to eat. It's pierced noses, bright saris, and body jewelry signifying the different castes. It's bright multi-colored saris, turbans, holy men in rags, school uniforms (for those fortunate enough to attend school).

There are wonderful people who invite you into their homes and hearts after only a brief meeting. It's beautiful marble temples where even the local priest begs for a rupee or a pen. It's beautiful talented artistry handed down from generation to generation; silver jewelry, jewel encrusted marble, handwoven cloth - each city with it's own unique talent and treat.

Throw a stone in any direction and you are sure to hit a temple of Ganesh, Shiva, Brahma or any of the other hundreds of gods. Throw a stone in the other direction and you will hit poverty, children with shredded clothes, men peeing, and pollution.

It's the most spiritual place I've ever been. The hindus with their daily puga, and the moslems with their call to prayer five times a day. India just celebrated big festivals for both - Diwali for hindus, and Eid for muslims. I've even been on several bus journeys where the bus driver pulls over to pray at a local shrine. Hey, anything to insure a safe journey is welcome by me!

When I have some more time I'll jot down my favorite images of northern india. I'm only here for two more days and then am heading to Sri Lanka for a vacation! Yes, even I get a vacation from my around-the-world adventure. I plan to stay in Sri Lanka for two weeks and then will return to India to continue my adventures.

Sri Lanka should be fun and I've been looking forward to it as if it were Christmas, since a very special friend is coming to visit me. My first visitor from America! I hope he brings good ol' NYC bagels with him!
So, there may not be many updates in the next few weeks. But do keep checking in...Namaste, jen


Udaipur - India
Nov 23, 2004

After much deliberation, and a little pleading from some new indian friends, I decided to extend my visit to Udaipur by one day by cancelling my 16 hour bus ticket and instead splurge on an airline ticket to Bombay. So, for $135, I was able to get an extra day in my favorite city (so far) in Rajasthan while avoiding the pain and suffering of a long bus ride on the infamous roads of India.

Of all of the Rajasthan cities I visited my favorites were Jaipur and Udaipur because of the wonderful, genuine, people I met.

Udaipur was just large enough that you could get lost in the narrow streets but still always find your way home. Intricate buildings encircle the mirror-glass lake (although now it's half dried up due to the drought) and in the center of the lake is the mythical Lake Palace. The Lake Palace, in addition to the land-based City Palace make Udaipur a whimsical, magical, place. In addition to these huge landmarks, the city is full to exploding with palaces, temples and havelis. Go rent the James Bond movie "Octupussy" if you want to see some of the palaces and streets of Udaipur. The scenes shot in Delhi are actually Udaipur.

Anyway, after spending a relaxing day in Udaipur today, I had to head to the airport for my flight. I left the guest house at 6:00pm which should have left plenty of time to make my flight but... I hadn't counted on the President of India being in town, and wreaking havoc with traffic. Ten minutes into the thirty minute ride we were parked on the only street leading to the airport. Around us were buses loaded to over-capacity, taxis, motorcycles, taxis and cars. All parked. No movement in sight. After an hour the traffic started moving - slowly - and we got another kilometer before coming to another standstill. Another ten minutes passed at the second traffic jam but this time once we got moving the taxi driver and his co-pilot decided to make up for lost time by creating lanes where there weren't any. We passed buses and cars and motorcycles. We took up both lanes, all lanes, and the shoulder. I screamed shanti shanti shanti since they are the only hindi words I know that seemed suitable for the mayhem (shanti means quiet or slowly). But the taxi raced on. At 7:55pm we arrived at the airport. My flight was at 7:25pm. Mind you I've NEVER been late for a flight before. And, if I didn't get to Bombay tonight I wouldn't get to Sri Lanka - so it wasn't the time to start missing flights.

But, when I got the airport the security guards grabbed all of my bags, scanned them, and off the bags went onto the awaiting plane. Even my carry-on was carried-off, and put onto the plane! After a few wand searches, they told me to run because the plane actually had waited for the people who were stuck in the traffic jam. But, it gets better. Once on the airplane, and safely at cruising altitude, we heard over the speaker "is there a doctor on board"? There was a sick passenger a few rows back and luckily there were plenty of Indian doctors on board to help him out. Only India...Only India! Then, to cap off the first part of my journey to Sri Lanka, I was on the bus between the domestic and international terminals when Rachal (from Alaska) sat down next to me. Her first question was "have you found jesus"? I replied "I wouldn't be able to travel the world without him"! Then she grabbed my hand and said a prayer for me and my safe journey. Hey, I can use all of the prayers I can get!

Now it's 12:00a.m. and my flight to Sri Lanka is at 3:45am. Can you imagine? A flight at 3:45 in the morning? Luckily there is a computer kiosk here so I can catch up a bit.

I just added a handful of photos and hope you enjoy them.

Cheers for now and HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all.

Jen




Sri Lanka
Dec 4, 2004



Tonight I head back to India after a phenomenal ten day vacation in Sri Lanka with John.

From beautifully maintained ancient cities, to lush tea plantations, to stunning scenery, to hikes up hill top fortresses, to witnessing a Budhist wedding, to relaxation on the beach, to a brush with wild elephants (and a hotel mouse). I now know why they call Sri Lanka the jewel of the Indian Ocean.

When I have a little more time I'll update this journal with all of the wonderful experiences and adventures we shared.




Bombay, India...again
Dec 6, 2004

The hardest part of my trip, so far, was coming back to India. It was probably like what runner's feel when they hit mile 17 in the NYC marathon. Like you want to quit, you just can't go on, and the sideline is within reach...but somehow you dig deep - into a depth you didn't know you had, and continue on. One foot in front of the other.

And so it goes. I landed in Bombay at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday after a brief (wishful)daydream that my visa would be rejected at embarkation and I'd be sent home. But, my paperwork was in order, so here I am. Back in India. The land of poverty, pollution, exhaustion, bartering, blatant staring, and bakshish (bribery). Can you tell I've just about had it?!

I can't really complain. It turns out that Bombay is a very civil and manageable city. Sometimes you feel like your in London, other times Prague, and still other times home. Yet it's Bombay!

I've already made several new friends here so am happy to have some company for the next part of my journey - heading south to the beach. Last night we splurged and enjoyed a five star meal at the well known Taj Mahal hotel. It's one of the most beautiful hotels in India. Dinner, at $40 a person, was worth it's weight in gold if only for the wonderful views of the Gate of Bombay and Bombay harbour. The delicious Middle Eastern food, and the A-list Bollywood movie star at the adjacent table, only added to the unique evening.




Ellora & Ajanta, India (updated)
Dec 16, 2004

Sorry for the time warp. I kept meaning to write but either got caught up in India, or got stuck in a place with no internet access. So, where has the time gone?..

I ended up staying in Bombay last week for one extra day before heading via local train to Aurangabad. I had read about Aurangabad in my favorite travel resource "1,000 Places To See Before You Die". I had to use Aurangabad as a base to see the Ellora and Ajanta Caves, which promised "astonishing hand-carved cave temples as massive and overwhelming as the Taj Mahal is beautiful". The caves did not disappoint.

After an eight hour train ride, complete with an angry mob at each stop banging on the windows to be let into the over-packed train car, I ended up safely in Aurangabad. I quickly realized that the city of Aurangabad had little to offer, so moved my base to Ellora and found a wonderful guesthouse within eyesight of the caves.

I ended up spending five days in Ellora - two days exploring the Ellora Caves, one day exploring the Ajanta Caves and the rest of the time enjoying the spring-like temperatures (as opposed to 90 degrees with opressive heat/humidity in Bombay) and small deck attached to my room.

What can I say about Ellora and Ajanta? PHENOMENAL! Now I understand why they made "the list". Please, if you have some time, check them out via a search on the web. I just don't think I have the vocabulary to describe them. Each complex contains dozens of temples and monasteries carved from solid rock. Some are lavishly decorated with frescoes and statues, and others are breathtaking in their architectural intricacy and detail. Each, it's own work of art. The thirty Buddhist temples at Ajanta date from 200 B.C. to 650 A.D. but were only rediscovered in the 19th century, which accounts for their excellent state of preservation. The other set of caves, the Ellora caves, were even more phenomenal and more spiritual in their design and feeling. Nothing less than a masterpiece, the creation of the thirty-four caves of Ellora was a feat equivalent to carving an entire cathedral, top to bottom, out of solid rock.

The 'piece-de-resistance' was the magical Kailash Temple of Ellora whose dimension and complexity were mind-boggling. At almost 10,000 square feet it, alone, covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens! And that's just one of the temples! I spent an entire afternoon in the Kailash Temple - found a corner where I could write and relax and absorb the enormity and the beauty. Unfortunately, my solitude was short lived, and I quickly became the subject of many amateur photographers who thought I wouldn't notice a camera aimed in my direction from 20 feet away. So, the trick is, find a place for solitude...but move to another spot every 20 minutes. I'm a quick learner, but only AFTER I became a school mascot for about 75 kids exploring the temple. They noticed me from 100 yards away and all started waving and screaming hello. A security guard nearby had to blow his whistle to restore the peace! Only India!

After Ellora and Ajanta I returned to Bombay for a few days before continuing the journey south to Goa. The train to Goa was unexpectedly wonderful. Each person had a seat (a rarity in India) and they had a continuous food parade throughout the 8 hour journey. From tea, to coffee, to sandwiches, to soup, to chips, to local delicacies, every 3 minutes there was a new treat for only a few rupees. Talk about paradise - I never wanted to leave the train!

But, leave the train I did - and now I'm at the beach. Really. As I type this, the beach is only 100 yards away and the weather is perfect. The beach is about half a mile long, lined with small beach bungalows on stilts, restaurants grilling fresh fish, and beachwear cabanas selling everything from sarongs to toilet paper. I found a bungalow for 700 rupees ($15) a night which was almost perfect. The only thing it was missing was the sound of the ocean and the breeze from the surf so...I spent today looking for the perfect bungalow along the beach for an extended stay. And I found one. It's right on the beach; up on stilts so it has a clear 180-degree view of the ocean, has a small deck for lazy sunsets, a ceiling fan, and staw mats as walls. The bathroom is about 50 yards inland but that's a small price to pay for my new little home - which happens to cost even less then my first bungalow. Now I'm paying only 350 a night ($7.50). I plan to stay here through Christmas - maybe even New Years - and have already run into several travel friends I made up in northern India. This truly is a small world.

====update====

Ran into even more friends last night at a local beach-pub! Three gals and a boy from England. I had met them in Jaisalmer originally, and then we crossed paths again in Udaipur. When they saw me here in Goa I got huge, welcoming, hugs. Its wierd when you travel - friendships are formed quickly and deeply. I am thrilled to be here on the beach, but even more thrilled to know that I have an ever-growing group of friends to spend the holidays with.

=====update about the bungalow=====
Not that I'm complaining but....a beach bungalow right on the beach has a few drawbacks:
1. It gets downright cold at night with the sea breeze washing right thru the bamboo walls. Tonight I'll stock up on some wool blankets.
2. It's loud! The surf, when you are trying to sleep, sounds like a wave could overtake the bungalow. I never thought I'd be kept awake because the sound of the surf is too loud! I hope I don't have to resort to ear plugs!

If you have time, please check out Goa (Palolem is the name of the town), Ellora, and Ajanta on the web.

I hope you are all doing well, and having a great time planning for the holiday season. Cheers,jen


HAPPY HOLIDAYS!
Dec 19, 2004

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year greetings from the sun, sand, and sea of Goa, India. Goa and India - what an oxymoron! Goa feels more like Bermuda than India. It's clean, beautiful, tourist-friendly, and...catholic. If it weren't for the random cow walking the beach, or the group of wild pigs who play under the bamboo huts, I'd surely forget I'm in India.

Here, the beaches are clean, the air pure, the sunsets dazzling, and the ocean refreshing. During the days I walk, read, eat fresh grilled fish (or indian cuisine) and swim. The open-air restaurants have tables right out on the beach, and add table clothes and candles at night for effect (and also for light in case of blackouts). It's a wonderful sight - watching the beach and beach-goers easiliy transition from daytime, thru sunset and into evening.

There's a (very) small party scene here but it's rather hard to find since the police have no rhyme or reason to which beach bars they will close down each night. A little backsheesh (bribe money) from the bar owner will only get the bars so far...

I planned to stay in the small beach town of Palolem thru Christmas but may instead head a little farther south (half a mile away) to the next beach town - Patnem - for a change of environment and even fewer tourists.

Where ever I end up i'll be thinking of my friends and family at home, and the new friends I've made on this journey. I picture families sitting together in front of their fireplaces - opening christmas gifts, and seeing what treats santa has left for them in their stockings.

I did have a Santa-sighting here on the beach a few days ago. I saw him, all dressed up in his red suit, singing christmas carols in the local beach-side bars, and asking for backsheesh! Only India!

At christmas, and always, I count my blessings...
- my amazing family
- phenomenal, supportive, friends
- friendships i've made along this journey which literally mean 'the world' to me!
- good health
- safety
- and, of course, a nice bungalow on the beach!

My love to all. And a huge thank you for being so supportive of my trip. Merry Christmas, and a Happy Healthy 2005. May it be the best year ever...for all of us.
Love, Jen


Goa - India (have not been hit by the tsunamis or earthquake)
Dec 26, 2004

Just wanted to let everyone know that I'm fine. I just heard about the earthquake and tsunamis so will still clear of the ocean for the time being. But I'm fine! Really. So stop worrying...

Will update my website later this week or next.

Happy Holidays to all.

Jen



Goa, India
Dec 28, 2004

In spite of the tragedy here in southeast asia, my journey continues. I can't say I've been unaffected by the tragedy but in some ways I have been insulated from it. Where I was staying, Patnem Beach, had waters rise to the entranceways of the restaurants but not a single bungalow was washed away. The beach of Palolem didn't fair quite as well since a few people thought the end of the world was upon them, and started a mass evacuation to the hills nearby. It's amazing how one person screaming "wolf" can send a whole herd of people into mass chaos. Granted, Palolem did lose a few huts to the rising tide...but no one was hurt. If anyone got hurt it was in the mass hysteria of people exiting the small town.

Menno (from Holland) and I explored both towns until late at night - I guess curiosity got the best of us. We watched the rising water come right up to (and sometimes into) the restaurants, and watched the indians pack 10 - 20 people into jeeps to head for the hills. We also watched handfuls of people continue to party right near the rising tide.

When we got back to Om Shanti Bungalow in Patnem the owner of the complex, Russell, was in a panic. He said that the water was 'quiet' and thus he was expecting the next big wave. Plus, he got a phone call from his girfriend in the UK who said that she heard that another big wave was headed our way (the west coast of india?!). Anyway, Russell managed to freak everyone out just enough. He gave Menno and I a key to a nearby guest house - a quarter mile inland - so we ended up packing up our things and moving out of the bungalow at around 2:00 a.m.

But, other than that, it really has been business as usual here. We see in the newspapers about the devastation and the rising death toll. But it still feels like a world away. Perhap it even effects those at home more because of the easier access to the media and news updates. Maybe it's better that way...for me. Cause if/when this tragedy hits me personally I may breakdown and grab the next flight home.

Until then, I'm going to pray for the families of all those lost in the tsunamis. And I'll pray for the many travellers I've met so far on this journey. May they all be safe.

My love to all. Have a safe, happy, healthy, New Year.

Jen
Still in Goa...



Ringing in the New Year!
Dec 30, 2004

The countdown continues...and the New Years celebrations kick it up a notch.

Here in Vagator, Goa, the continuous New Years celebration continues. Getting settled in Vagator just about drained me of energy but once the night settled and the house music started I was ready to kick it up a notch at my first 'Rave Party'!
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Yesterday was a very long day. After two, one-hour, bus rides to get to Vagator it took another three hours to locate a relatively clean place to stay in the tiny, party town of Vagator. I've never heard "full" so many times in one day before. Things were looking desperate and it appeared that a rooftop or a storage closet would be our only options. But, my little travel angel finally woke up from his slumber and pointed us in the right direction so we ended up in a decent place not far from the beach...or the parties.

After a quick unpacking* we headed out of the guest house and followed the parade of motorcycles and scooters down to the beach for a "Rave Party". What an experience! When I get back online I'll tell you more about the party...
Until then HAVE A HAPPY, HEALTHY, SAFE NEW YEAR.
*Melanie oliva - i will never forget the comment you made about how tedious it is to unpack and pack every day! I think of you every time i'm cursing out my backpack! :)




New Years in Goa...
Jan 2, 2005

Instead of the wild, party-filled, New Years I hoped to have...I rang in the New Year curled up in my bed. Like they always say..."Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans".
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Between the emotional strain of the ever-rising tsunami death toll, and an ailment that has caused a rash from belly button to knee, I've been a walking disaster for about a week now. I'm in Vagator, Goa, but have spent two of the last five days taking taxis back and forth to the nearest city (Panaji) for medical treatment and testing.

After two doctors, and multiple tests, we finally have it narrowed down to an internal infection. Talk about painful? The pain kept me awake for three nights in a row. Now...take an exhausted Jen, and pour on the sporadic information I've been able to gather about the tsunamies and the rising death toll, and you have a crying, itching, exhausted puddle.

Menno is still travelling with me, and even took the road trips with me into Panaji, but my crankiness is wearing us both pretty thin. Believe me, if I could crawl out of my skin sometimes I would.

New Years Eve was a total bust. I tried to rally so we decided on a restaurant within easy walking distance to the guest house. After we ordered our food, I looked over at Menno and he was half asleep. When I felt his forehead I realized he was burning up. We quickly realized that New Years Eve or not, this was not a night for us to be out on the town. I walked Menno back to the guest house and then got dinner 'to take away' and had a little picnic, by myself, on the steps outside my door. When I finished eating it was only 11:15pm and I simply could not stay awake until midnight. So, THAT, was my New Years.

I'd love to tell you all about the beaches of North Goa, the Rave-Parties, and the wonderful new friends I've made but...I can't. I haven't been out much but from what I've seen of Vagator, it's another "little Israel". For a few ruppees a day groups of (mostly) Israelis call Vagator home for the entire month of December and possibly even January. The one night Menno and I did go out we calculated the town to be 40% Indians, 50% Isrealis and 10% other.

I hope to leave Goa in a few days...after the medicine has had a chance to work it's magic. Next stop, Hampi, India. But, if anyone hears of volunteer opportunities over here please PLEASE let me know. I am eager to help with the disaster relief in any way possible.




Margao, India
Jan 4, 2005

After three weeks at various Goan beaches, I'm ready to hit the road and again explore the 'real' India. I spent the better part of today on buses (three) to get to Margao which is the town nearest to the train station. Tomorrow morning I will wrestle my way onto an east-bound train to Hampi at 7:30 a.m. Hopefully, I'll get a seat but I'm prepared to stand eight hours if that's what it takes to get out of here. I didn't think I'd ever be sick of the beach but after three weeks of sand/sun/salt, a random illness, and the tsunami tragedy - any change is a good change.

I'm feeling much better now that I'm on the right medication and am seeing a vast improvement in my health each day. I'm a bit embarassed that I was so open about my ailments on this website but I didn't want everyone to think that it was all sugar and roses over here either.

Ironically, today is the first day I've had access to a hot shower, a western toilet, clean sheets and TV in almost a month. I've been glued to the TV but can't find any station recaping the devastation of the tsunami. What I really need is a program called "For Those Living Under A Rock..." I've been reading the newspapers, and checking the news stories online but in some ways I'm still numb to the enormity of it. In Goa, it was business as usual in almost every aspect. People talked of the disaster but no one seemed to be doing anything about it, which has me puzzled, angry and frustrated.

Please keep sending me information on the tsunamies - especially if you hear of organizations looking for immediate volunteers here in India (Thanks Allesandra).

Until then, be safe, be happy, and live life to the fullest.

Jen




Hampi, India
Jan 7, 2005

Hampi is breathtaking and mindboggling in a "Bedrock" sort of way! It looks as if God was playing Jax with huge house-size boulders here, so I keep expecting Barney Rubble or Fred Flintstone to appear. As far as the eye can see there are huge round boulders perched one on top of the other, balanced precariously to make large, artistic, hillsides out of rock. Amid the bouldered landscape are extravagantly carved rock temples - some two to three stories high - which are the remnants of what was once the capital of one of the largest Hindu empires in Indian History. A dynasty which peaked in the 1550s.
- - - -
Hampi is worth every minute of the two day journey to get here - from the eight hour bus ride to the four local buses, to the rickshaw. Not only is it nice to get way from the over-touristed beaches of Goa, but it's simply remarkable here in Hampi.

When we arrived in Hospet (the nearest town to Hampi via the train) we took a rickshaw to the local bus depot for the last leg of the journey. By then I was a little stir crazy so started commentating to my fellow traveller, Menno, as if we were the lead team in the TV show "The Amazing Race". We were the first "team" to make the transition from train to rickshaw to bus so I got to sit back and watch the other five "teams", and 40 locals, scramble to get onboard.

After a 30 minute bus ride all six teams, and forty locals, arrived Hampi and started stage two of "The Amazing Race"...finding accommodations. Menno and I quickly snuck out the back of the bus in Hampi and started the quest - landing in simple/basic rooms with squat toilets (again) and cold showers (again). We checked-in by filling out a simple form, dropped our bags, and walked up a nearby rock mountain to catch a beautiful sunset.

The next day we realy got to immerse ourselves in Hampi. On foot we explored the sublime boulder-strewn landscpe scattered with numerous temples. Hampi's main street is 1km long and dominated by the Virupakona Temple, almost 145ft high, and built in 1442. The dusty main street is now a bustling little village catering to tourists. The street is made up of ancient rock structures now housing tiny open-air restaurants, shops, a primary school and even a handful of telephone/internet rooms.

Yesterday, Menno and I walked to the nearby 16th century Vittali Temple (a world heritage site). We quickly realized that the temple is not only for foreigners as bus loads of Indian school children arrived in droves. Soon children in packs of 10, 20, 30 stopped us to take 'snaps' (photos) and/or just wanted to shake our hands. For about an hour we played along, smiling for all of the cameras and wondering how many Indian photo albums we would make it into.

After a few hours exploring the rest of the "must see" temples we started the 3km walk back to town. Half way back a caravan of school buses, packed to overflowing, passed us by. We laughed as we waved back to each and every school child hanging out the windows. One bus driver even stopped along the road to snap a few more photos with us and the kids.

Then...the most packed bus of all stopped right next to us and the driver (who we had met earlier) ushered us on board for the rest of the trip to Hampi. We wiggled onto the overpacked bus, shook some more hands, smiled for more photos, and made our way back to Hampi - in the luxury of an overpacked bus of school kids. What a riot!
---
Hampi is a very special place. Not only because it looks ilke Mars or Bedrock with huge boulders scattered across the landscape, and ancient temples around every corner but because of the people. The local indians, and indian tourists are warm and friendly and always open for a conversation in the best english they can muster.
---
In India the reward is both in the destination...and the journey!

And, for those of you tracking my progress...I did NOT have to stand on the eight hour train to Hospet/Hampi. Six locals were kind enough to make room for us in their tiny sleeper compartment. We were the lucky ones. Some of the other sleeper compartments were crammed with twelve people. But everyone got seats. That's India. Sometimes you're not sure how it all works - - but it does




Mysore, India
Jan 11, 2005


Looks like I'll be staying an extra day in Mysore...this time Menno is sick. I'd love to leave but after all of the doctor's visits he accompanied me to, I can't just ditch the guy in the middle of India...can I?!

Anyway, Mysore isn't a bad little city. It's very different from Hampi in that it's a real city and not one that exists solely for tourists. There are no postcard vendors here, few souvenir shops, only Indian restaurants, and the Indian to tourist ratio is 10,000 to 1. As opposed to Hampi which seems like 1 to 1.

When we arrived on Sunday night, after a 12-hour overnight train, a 6-hour layover in Bangalore, and a 3-hour local train, we found a hotel in Mysore with hot water, clean sheets, fresh towels, and room service (tea and coffee). I was even more surprised when The Indian News was slipped under my door at 7:00 a.m. It feels like pure luxury after the last few places I've stayed. Of course there is a bit of a downside and that is the 'dorm' feeling and 'dorm' noise level in the rooms. Even though the rooms are all singles and doubles, much sleep is lost due to loud neighbors.

But we arrived in Mysore on a Sunday night - not realizing the treat we were in for. When we went out to explore the city we stumbled on the Maharaja's Palace. Of course it's easy to stumble onto the palace since it takes up 1/8th of the city, but our first ever site of it was when it was illumated by over 97,000 light bulbs. An occurence that happens every Sunday for only 1 hour! So THAT explains the carnival-like atmosphere around the palace gates complete with people selling balloons, cotton candy, fresh fruit, toys, and indian treats. That also explains the three bands playing in the courtyard of the palace! What great timing! The brightly-lit palace against the black sky, thousands of indians milling about the palace grounds - some enjoying family picnics, and a handful of tourists wondering what they just stumbled onto!

The next day we went back to see the palace in the daylight. After checking our shoes and cameras at the entrance gate, since neither are allowed within the palace itself, we walked into the interior of the palace with it's kaleidoscope of stained glass, mirrors, gaudy colors, intricately carved doors, and mosaic floors. Even with all of these wonderful, eye-filling, treats the thing that caught my attention most was the collection of paintings of the most recent Maharajas of Mysore, the Wodeyars. The Maharaja himself resembles my brother! I swear they have the same brown eyes, and even the same smile! Mom/Dad, do you think...maybe...we aren't really German/Russian/Welch/Lebanese but are in fact Indian?! Royalty no less?!

Tomorrow I hope to walk up the 1,000 steps leading to Chamundi Hill which overlooks Mysore. The top of the hill is dominated by a 40 meter high, seven story, temple. I may have rubbery legs by mid-day.

Well, folks, that's all that's new. My next destination is Kerala, and then a 2 week yoga ashram from February 1st to 15th. There is a chance I may also hit southern Thailand to help rebuild a small fishing village that was destroyed by the Tsunamis. And then Burma and Laos and...

Hope all is well at home. I hear that the weather on both coasts is a little nutty. Please stay safe.

Jen




Mysore, India
Jan 12, 2005


Yesterday I climbed the 1,000 steps of Chamundi Hill to reach the Sri Chamundeswari Temple. Since pilgrms are supposed to climb the 1000 steps to the top, rather than take the local bus, I pictured hundreds of people clamoring to the top, elbow to elbow. Instead, I was completely alone.

When I got to the top I was again surprised...there were about 1,000 Indians waiting to get into the Sri Chamundeswari Temple. All of them, presumably, had arrived on the tour buses which were strategically parked at the other end of a long row of small shops selling pocketbooks, jewelry, candy, water, and t-shirts. I laughed, paid my 10 rupees (25 cents) and stood in the queue for 15 minutes to see inside the magnificent temple.

On the walk back down the mountain, I encountered a handful of tourists, and one pushy indian who pointed to his cheek and muttered the only english he knew "kiss...kiss". Luckily, among the very few Hindi words I now know are "cello..cello" and "shanti...shanti". "Shanti" meaning I wanted to decend the mountain really really slowly (so he should go on ahead of me) and "cello" meaning "move on" "move on". When the "shanti...shanti" didn't work I resorted to sitting on the steps and yelled out "cello" "cello" "cello" until he finally got the picture and...moved on.

A little farther down the hill I stopped for a photo at a famous 5-meter high Nandi (Shiva's bull vehicle), carved out of solid rock in 1659. Nearby was a tiny Shiva temple carved into a cave no bigger than an office cubicle. Inside were 5 westerners enjoying tea with the local priest or sadu.

...Only in India....! :)

This afternoon I'm taking the bus to Udhagamandalam (Ooty for short). It's a hill station so I'll probably need to dig out some warm clothes from my backpack. I'm not really sure what to expect there but my travel guide (The Lonely Planet) promises: an unlikely combo of southern england and australia complete with stone cottages, bijou-fenced flower gardens, leafy winding lanes and tall eucalyptus stands. My only concern is that it also mentions 36 hairpin bends on the road between here and there. Still, it seems better than heading to another city. I'm a little 'citied out' after Mysore.




Kochi and The Tipping Point...
Jan 16, 2005


Right now I'm in Kochi after spending a nice day trekking in the beautiful hills of Ooty. Ooty was everything I imagined it would be and reminded me of my prior tours of tea plantations (Malaysia and Sri Lanka) and the long days of walking in Nepal. The sky was cystal clear, and the eucalyptus trees gave us a nice shade for most of the walk. The highlight was at the very end of the trek when we ended up looking out over the rest of india - far below.

It's hot and humid here in Kochi but it's a cute town with a handful of tourist places to visit including churches, a synagogue, and "jewtown". They are very proud of their Keralan culture here in Kochi so last night we went to a Kathakali performance. Kathakali is the stage dance-drama renowned in Kerala. Kathakali literally means "story play" and the performance is a dramatized presentation of a play where all of the dialoge is performed with the hands, body movements and facial gestures. Not words. We went early to watch them apply the extensive make-up to the three performers. It was amazing to see the transition from pre-makeup to full makeup to full makeup and costume. I think the whole process of the actors getting ready for the play was more time consuming than the show itself. What an art form!

Tomorrow I head to another national park and then down thru the backwaters of Kerala. All this leads to a yoga ashram on February 1st in Southern India. I was hoping to drop a few kilos there but received an e-mail from a friend who warned me that, although vegeterian, the ashram cooks everything in heaps of coconut oil.

Here is a little multiple choice question for you. What, exactly, is "The Tipping Point" on an around-the-world journey?

A. The point where you find yourself in a screaming match, with the person you've been travelling with for five weeks, over hot water usage.

B. The point on a local Indian bus ride where the only other non-indian (a Nigerian) threatens the conductor with brutal force if he doesn't make the bus driver slow down. To make a long story short - the Nigerian ended up in police custody for the night all the while screaming "you ahr playin wid my life here", and the bus made it down the mountain at top speed.

C. The point where westerners actually prefer squat toilets.

D. The point in hairpin-turn number 27 where you are 99% positive that the bus will careen over the edge and down a 300 ft ravine.

E. The point where you pay 1 rupee (2 cents) to get on a scale and realize that all that Nan, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Thali have added several kilos to your frame. Come on...who GAINS weight in India?!

F. The point on the sleeper train where you haven't yet slept, and the indian in the 'bed' next to you is not only snoring loudly but is making other noises that leave you gasping for air.

G. The point at dinner, when the beer you ordered arrives in a teapot with coffee mugs. Guess beer is off-limits in Kochi (except when passed off as 'special tea')!

F. All of the above.

Right now I'm in Kochi after spending a nice day trekking in the beautiful hills of Ooty. Ooty was everything I imagined it would be and reminded me of my prior tours of tea plantations (Malaysia and Sri Lanka) and the long days of walking in Nepal. The sky was cystal clear, and the eucalyptus trees gave us a nice shade for most of the walk. The highlight was at the very end of the trek when we ended up looking out over the rest of india - far below.

It's hot and humid here in Kochi but it's a cute town with a handful of tourist places to visit including churches, a synagogue, and "jewtown". They are very proud of their Keralan culture here in Kochi so last night we went to a Kathakali performance. Kathakali is the stage dance-drama renowned in Kerala. Kathakali literally means "story play" and the performance is a dramatized presentation of a play where all of the dialoge is performed with the hands, body movements and facial gestures. Not words. We went early to watch them apply the extensive make-up to the three performers. It was amazing to see the transition from pre-makeup to full makeup to full makeup and costume. I think the whole process of the actors getting ready for the play was more time consuming than the show itself. What an art form!

Tomorrow I head to another national park and then down thru the backwaters of Kerala. All this leads to a yoga ashram on February 1st in Southern India. I was hoping to drop a few kilos there but received an e-mail from a friend who warned me that, although vegeterian, the ashram cooks everything in heaps of coconut oil.




The backwaters of Kerala, India
Jan 23, 2005


Along the coast of southwest India and sandwiched between the sea and the hills is a vast network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals lined with dense tropical greenery. Views change from narrow shaded canals to dense vegetation to open vistas over the water to rice fields, to farms, churches, mosques, temples, and small homes on narrow spits of land only a few meters wide and barely big enough to fit a small house and tiny yard. All surrounded by water. School buses are replaced with school boats; rickshaws are replaced with canoes; and the main mode of transport is no longer the bus...it's a commuter boat! I love it!

I spent the last three days on three types of boats exploring these 'backwaters' of Kerala. The first day I took a 2 1/2 hour commuter boat between villages. The scenery was breathtaking - watching village life along the banks of the canals including bathing, washing (laundry/kitchen utensils etc), swimming, water collection and small canoes transporting coconuts, handmade cement, stones, and people, from one side of the canal to the other. The ride was brillliant, and a nice introduction to the varied scenery flanking the water's edge.

The boat was 30% tourist; 70% indian, and (as usual) Menno and I enjoyed our attempts at communicating with the locals. After the usual 'photo shoot' and hand shaking, Menno took out his MP3 player and was quickly swarmed by a group of curious onlookers. Since he couldn't allow each of them to stick the headphones in their ears, he pulled the paperback novel-size speakers out of his backpack and we all laughed as the indians held the speakers up to their ears and hummed along to Bob Marley singing "No Woman No Cry". Imagine it! A swarm of Indians handing around two rather large speakers so they could get an earful of Reggae! (Photo to follow).

When we arrived in the town of Allepy we were quickly swarmed by rickshaw drivers, houseboat owners and guest house touts. After a little maneuvering, a lot of negotiating, and 'site inspecting' (sorry for the Event Planner lingo) one guest house and three house boats, we ended up securing a two bedroom houseboat for the evening. We hadn't planned on spending the night on a boat but the boat was magnificent - a two bedroom, two bath, three staff, bamboo palace - all for 1,500 rupees each including meals and some extra beer! That's less than $45pp, and worth every rupee. The boat was more luxurious than some of the guest houses I've stayed in - it had 24 hour electricity, a fan, running water, mosquito nets and enough seating for about 20 people (including a 4 person dining room set in the bow)! We toured around Allepy via the canals for a few hours and then docked near the owners house. Since the chef had the day off, we got to enjoy the homemade Keralan food made by the boat owner's wife and it was one of the best meals I've had in the south. Wash it down with a Kingfisher beer or two and I was as content as could be.

After a good night's rest onboard, and a breakfast omelette and chai at the dining table, we worked our way back along the canal to the pier so we could get the 8 hour tourist boat to the next town - Kollam.

The tourist boat was rather empty, which may be due to tsunamie-fearing tourists who have headed north, so we had plenty of elbow room and lots of time to meet the other passengers. My favorite was Tipten - a gal from Washington D.C. (one of the few other americans I've met on this journey). She had just left the yoga ashram, where I'm headed, and warned me that it's "yoga boot camp" with 30 person dorms, a strict schedule, even stricter rules, and a daily 5:20am wake up! So much for a relaxing yoga 'vacation'! I do still plan to go to the yoga ashram for two weeks but now I'm a little more mentally prepared for it - I hope! Check it out at http://www.sivananda.org/ndam, and don't be surprised if there are no e-mails or web site updates from me from Feb 1st to Feb 15th. I've been warned about the lack of electricity and internet connection at the ashram!

Right now I'm in Kollam. It's a small market town with very few, if any, tourist sites. My hotel is somewhat in the 'burbs, but right on the beautiful (but unswimmable) beach. Tonight there is a festival right outside of the hotel honoring Sree Narayana Guru who preached "One caste. One religion. One God for the people" and fought for the rights of low caste members to worship at their local temples. I had planned to leave Kollam today but with all of the festival excitement in the air, and being one of only three westerners who know about it, how could I pass it up?!

Tomorrow I'll head to the beach town of Verkala. Many travellers agree it's their favorite place in India....

We shall see! For those of you with far too much time on your hands (perhaps you are blocked in by the mound of snow at your doorstep) you can check out Menno's web site at: http://www.mennor.tk/

January 24th Update: Staying in Kollam for one MORE night! Had such a nice time at the last night that we decided to stay for night #2 of the festival. Last nights procession included two brightly colored elephants, local Hindi music, young children dressed up as Krishna, men with peacock feather hats whirling about, and a statue of Sree Narayana Guru on the back of a small truck. Tonight the focus is dance and some of the local school girls have promised to teach me a step or two!




Kollam, India
Jan 25, 2005

Finally made it to the beach of Varkala. Was just 'passing through' the last town (Kollam) and got so entranced by the wonderful people and local festival that we stayed three nights instead of one.
- - - -
Between Kerala's 'backwaters' and it's southern beach towns is a chaotic little village which most most travellers either avoid or view as a quick stopover for the transition from backwater to beach.

We arrived in the village of Kollam after a scenic eight hour boat ride from Alleppy. Most other travellers on our boat immediately headed to the train station upon arrival but Menno and I decided to spend the night and were quickly ambushed by hotel touts and rickshaw drivers all pointing us in the same direction of a "mosquito-free, beachside, clean, inexpensive, hotel, 3km out of town - The Kollam Beach Resort". We decided that ten rickshaw driver and touts (although all on commission from the hotel) couldn't be wrong, and beach sounded much better than the chaotic hustle of main street anyway. So off we went - the rickshaw driver, one of the hotel touts, our 2 large backpacks, and 2 day packs - all stuffed randomly into a rickshaw.

When we got to the hotel we did a little price negotiating and unloaded our gear for the one night (ha ha) stay. Quickly we noticed two things: 1. There was only one other westerner in the hotel - let alone within a 3km radius. 2. There was a small pavilion being built nearby, and out on the beach was a colorful stage about twice the size of the shacks/homes in the community we were staying in.

The first night in Kollam, we explored the small, poor, village on foot and most of the neighborhood came out to greet us. Two westerners walking down the street, even at night, was worthy of parade status! Kids were awoken from their sleep and parents pointed at us or waved their baby's hands in our direction. Others came out to shake our hands or ask "where are you from"..."what is your name"... We were good sports about it and enjoyed the genuine smiles and warmth of the villagers.

That night we had dinner at the hotel and our waiter/friend/source-of-festival-information, Maju, claimed excitedly that the next evening would be filled with a music program, temple festivities, an elephant or two, and a sacred statue. Quickly, it was apparent that our one day in Kollam would last at least two...

The night of the music program was magical! There was plenty of excitement in the streets as the procession arrived - leading the procession were four men carrying huge round, colorful, billboards on their backs with paintings of Hindu Gods. They danced and whirled about. Next up was a handful of "peacock" men - men wearing head-dresses of long colorful peacock feathers accompanied by a beautiful (very tall) man in drag! Not to be outdone by the billboard men, they too whirled and danced about. Next up were the young girls with their mom's. They wore beautiful jewelry, dresses and make-up with hundreds of flowers in their hair. Each carried a small flame on their puja dish (dish of items for prayer at the new temple). And, come to find out, some of the beautiful young "girls" turned out to be boys. When I took a photo of three youngsters and called one of them "she" - shyly the gal next to me said..."that she is a boy!"

Following the youngsters were some royal umbrella carriers, boys with torches, and then the 'piece de resistance' the 2 foot high, stone, statue of Sree Narayana Guru carefully displayed and body-guarded on a small truck. The truck was well lit by a rickshaw with a floodlight following closely behind.

And, just when we thought the procession was over - we noticed two huge forms meandering towards us - large elephants - all decked out in jewelry and costumes for the occassion!

After the procession passed by we joined the villagers on the beach to watch the music program. At least 200 people sat in the sand area facing the stage. We enjoyed music for several hours, and made many indian friends who encouraged us to come again the next night for the dance portion of the festival! And, our two night stay quickly turned into three...

The next night was really wonderful for me because Maloo (a local school girl who became my best friend during the parade) was performing in the festivities along with her sister. I expected tradional Keralan dance but learned immediately that this was going to be "Boom Boom" performed by the Shooting Star Dance Team. Although the first scene was traditional (a solo by Maloo) the rest was straight out of Bollywood. Flashy outfits, disco/break-dancing, well choreographed, high kicking, high energy, flash-dance routines complete with strobe lights and a smoke machine on-stage! The program was scheduled to start at 8:30pm but got started at 10:30pm. Much of the audience slept through the second act - but the grand finale was my favorite...it featured a star appearance by a very strong, 6 foot, boa constrictor. Each dancer got their turn doing a solo number with it - either kissing it's head, or wrapping it around their necks as t
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Comments

Roshan on

Nice travel plans which you opted for. M Glad to read about that,. You can also visit kashmir this is one of the wonderful place to be in.

Log on to http://www.kashmirjourney.com for further details on updated information about Kashmir.

Regards
Roshan Raj

riley st. denis on

dude freaking sweet i wish lame ol me could go there.

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