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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

India: Winter 2010

Relaxing in Kerala
For the past two days I have been pleasantly getting over jet lag by staying in a lovely ayudedic and yoga retreat center where a boatman takes me across the backwaters to reach my bugalow next to the outdoor restaurant. I stayed up the first morning upon arrival (as my plane got in around 5am) to slowly see the day begin as it has for millenia here. The crows start a big racket and swoop in to take their place among the the coconut trees, then come the egrets and Indian pond herons with a few brahminy kites that resemble the African fish eagle but not so large and with a roufous color and white head. I've seen two kinds of kingfishers often, one with respendent blue wings.

Soon, men with dhotis around their waists arrive to take their morning ablutions. Their dark skin glistens in the morning light as they use the dhoti to wash their head, then pound it on the water to clean it. Out of nowhere more men arrive and they begin hauling large fishing nets from the sea, just as their ancestors did. A line of about 8 men walk backwards with the rope 20 feet or so while the man on the end neatly coils it. After a team member reaches the coil, he lets go of the rope and joins the front again. They sing while they toil, and the whole process take about 5 hours. Of course, I'm told they only catch small fish as the sea is being overfished.

I had never done any ayudedic treatments so first saw a doctor who asked me questions, felt my skin and nails and then advised my treatment. The first was a 2 hour hand and foot massge with the most amazing quantity of oil ever. I feel like an oiled pig as Sheba pulls from a rope hung from the ceiling of a pleasant hatched room to massage me with her agile feet. The other treatment I receive is laying flat on my back while hot medicial oil is dropped from a gold pot swaying above. Asha pours the oil slowly onto my Western forehand as I dissolve into the sounds and scents of India.

Yesterday I had my own private yoga session with a local teacher. He works in a nearby ashram and looks exactly like my stereotype of a yogi--small and lithe with a beatific manner. At the end as I lay in corpse pose, he chants "Relax feet" repeating all the parts of my body from the feet to the head. The vibration of his bartitone voice results in the most memorable shivasana I've ever experienced.

I'm already feeling a little nostalgic for this place with the staff so solicitous and the scene so idyllic but there's lots more to see and experience so I'll leave soon for the train and the trip up the coast to Varkala.

I'm outside of Thrissur, Kerala's 2nd largest town at a lovely resort on the Bharatapuzha River, sacred to Hindus but unfortunately it's just a small stream now surrounded by yellow sand since its headwaters have been dammed. India must depend a lot on hydroelectric power since it luckily has limited oil and coal. I can only hope the paltry promises that the West made during the recent Copenhagen talks will come to fruition as I've seen scarcely a solar panel and certainly not windpower anywhere. Most folks here use biomass (burning wood, dung etc) for their energy, at least in the rural areas where I've spent the majority of my time.

Since I last wrote, I went by train to Kurmarakarom (which doesn't exactly roll off my tongue). I've been butchering the names of places right and left. I stayed at a modest "homestay" there which they call many small resorts and had a wonderful view of the largest lake in Kerala. This area is called the backwaters and the population here is 4 times that of the rest of Kerala as lots of folks can make a living off the tourists plus from fishing in the lake and marshes. Luckily, a Brit made a bird sanctuary of his property ages ago so I spent 2 delightful mornings with a guide seeing some species that were just returning for winter migration including the jacana and white ibis. The 2nd morning we saw a bird that neither of us could identify for the longest time, a brilliant blue bird with a mixture of amazing color when it flies. As we were stumped, the boatman, who rows the little dugout canoe, called his friend, a bird expert, described the bird and made the assessment that we were in fact seeing an Indian roller, similar to the lilac breasted roller that I had seen many times in East Africa. As much as I resent the way that cell phones have intruded on our lives (and I insist that all my bird guides turn them off), I appreciated the remote identification.

In Kurmarakom, I pulled my usual trick of acting like I'm staying in a high end resort, only to be able to use their swimming pool and other amenities. This time was even more productive than usual, as the "food and beverage" manager invited me to attend the resort's evening performance of "kathakali", the trademark theater of Kerala, literally "story-play" originating from the 17th century and a mesmerizing cultural experience. It's mime and graceful, athletic moves all rolled into one with at least 3 musicians backing up the actors on percussion, voice and a bell gong. The actors paint a green mask on their own face and all roles, both men and women are performed by you know who. The intricate facial moves, including rolling back the eyeballs to expose a red looking surface underneath blew me away. I returned the next day with a middle aged Welsh couple in tow for the pool and outdoor performance. The main reason I came to the small town I'm now at was because it's the center of schools for learning this method but, alas, all the students are taking their Christmas holiday break.

On the way to Kurmarakom I spent a night in Varkala, a hip beach town with some great live music and youngish vibe. I enjoyed yoga on the nearby black sand beach and taking a dip afterwards in the warm but refreshing Arabian sea. Perhaps my favorite area so far has been around Munnar, the spectacularly beautiful area of tea plantations that the British planted at the end of the 1800's, detroying the native hardwood forests. After the tropical humid area close to the water, the hill country's climate is cool and drier, perfect for tea and probably also could be for wine. But Indians by far prefer their 4 cups of chai to a glass of chardonnay. Vendors on all the trains carry hot pots of chai and it's hawked continuously. In Munnar, I hired a bird guide for 2 days, a 21 year old named Junis who was reserved and bright and knew his birds, like "the back of his hand", an expression I had fun teaching him, as well as "the early bird gets the worm." When I found one of the four endemic species we saw one morning, a shy bird called the white bellied shortwing, he enthusiastically gave me a high 5 and get repeating, "Excellent spotting, excellent spotting." I felt like I'd just passed an intermediate birding exam with flying colors (so to speak.) We spent the night at Top Station, a high point with a proper English name and I was happy to be up early the next morning to see the Malabar black monkeys and Malabar giant squirrel (at least two feet long with a remarkable red stripe) before returinmg to Munnar where we saw a peregrine falcon. It's not hard to make me cry, but I did so when I parted company with Junis, a feeling of shared passion for seeing birds and gratitude for his good cheer. As we made our way down from Top Station, we passed at least 3 groups of cyclists in training, including at least 4 young women (not that I was counting.) It was refreshing to see as the sex segregation here, just as in most developing countries, is depressing. I have yet to see even one woman taxi driver or waitress, much less women driving, except for the occassional "bike" which means motorcycle here.

Today I took the local bus and what a spine twisting, nerve wracking experience that can be. Almost all cars here have the words "Sound Horn" writ large on the backs of their bumpers and their fellow citizens take the interrogative seriously. A bus driver must honk as he precariously passes every car, truck and "bike" as fast as possible. I thought the honking would give me a headache or at least a stress attack but I soon proceeded to close my eyes and doze instead. Other common sights--red flags with the hammer and sickle and occasional images of Che in various spots, plus lots of Jesus on the cross, Ganeshes and Krishnas. The communists control Kerala for at least another year and many folks attribute the high standard of living and literacy to their efforts. Just not much progress in the area of gender equality that I can surmise. Other notable slogans that I saw today included "One family one child" (no doubt the result of Planned Parenthood's global reach) and " Do not mix drinks in driving".

I will be spending the next 3 nights in Cochin before flying off to New Delhi to meet up with Mas and tour Rajasthan.

Roaming Rajasthan with a Driver
Mas and I are back having some memorable travel adventures, reconnecting after our safari more than 2 years ago in Kenya. She is a lot of fun and always up for getting our photos made with the locals, even when I've tired of answering the predictable, "What country are you from, are you married and how many children do you have?" We are leaving today for Jaiselmar and our camel safari after 2 days in Bikaner where we marvelled at the homage to the camel here. Imagine sand dunes and maybe 5,000 folks (mostly men) in two large amphitheaters of sand with a stage and a long straight away where the bedecked camels race. We sat in the dunes waiting for a race and just as the ending came everyone (except us) would jump to their feet and cheer the rider and animal. Many of the camels seem to have a mind of their own, scampering off course and causing folks nearby to scatter out of the way. As the races ended the sun set just as the full moon rose in the east.

The previous day we were astonsihed to see the men dessed up in the old days of the maharajh style with the "sultan" look of old photos and films. I couldn't believe that the long moustaches encircled like a bun and pinned to their sideburns were actually real. When I approached a man and asked him, he unwhirled his moustache and held it out at arms length for us to witness. Mas and I entertained the crowd by holding the tips and getting our photo made. The camel really is the backbone of transportation here and has been used for thousands of years as Bikaner and Jaiselmer are along the camel route that went across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. The Britush paid the Indians dearly for camels during their oocupation of Afghanistan. Later we celebrated my bday with a bottle of nice red wine that Mas had brought all the way from Singapore with a Columbian family and our driver Thakur. Thakur is a careful driver and makes sure we are comfortable. Although his English is somewhat limited, he wistfully described being in love with a Japanese woman many years ago and had even gone to Japan to visit her for a month. When he told his parents he wanted to marry her, they put the kabash on that and he married an Indian and has 3 children. Marriage here is so expected and such an industry that the average Indian has a hard time understanding anyone not being married. Some of the more educated folks though are understandably envouis that Mas and I have the opportunity to travel like we do.

As I write my hands are a little chilly. After 2 weeks in the mostly tropical climes of Kerala, it's quite cold here in the morning and evenings, something quite unexpected for us as I assumed India was mostly hot except for the Himalayas. I sometimes miss my cozy heated living room but then I visit an old fort like that here in Bikaner and remember why I love the refuge of the road.

"I have a fort in Bikaner." "But it's a small fort". With that, the proprietor of Jas Villas in Jaipur told us so much about who she was. It explained her regal bearing and lovely guesthouse in the pink city of Jaipur, known for the sandstone that had been painted pink for a royal visit from Britain. Mas and I were in Rajasthan for 2 weeks and they were having a cold spell. It was quite chilly and we spent everyday asking for space heaters for our hotel rooms.

Rajasthan is a vast dry desert with some large towns with amazing forts and palaces where the maharajas lived until the last century. I often reflected how it resembled the savannah of East Africa, with camels taking the place of giraffes as they grazed on what looked like similar acacia trees. After the camel festival in Bikaner, we made our way on toward the western border with Pakistan, seeing lots of military vehicles along the way. We stayed for a night in Kuri, a small village near Jaisalmer to go on the camel safari. After seeing a lovely sunset we came back into the patio of the guesthouse to lie on couches and watch a local band play music. The 8 or so men played a variety of percussive instruments including tablas and a large drum whose sound and rhythms reminded me of the Brazilian surdo. The 15 year old virtuoso on the drum was a little surprised when I wanted to try playing it but gave it up to me for a few minutes. Two gorgeous young women in long and colorful skirts and headresses danced to the rhythms and enjoyed that some of the Indian tourists and yours truly danced with them, practicing my Bollywood moves that are ubiquitous on the TV here. After a cold night we decided to take a day ride the next day with our camels, Jetta and Raju. Riding camels is fun for about 2 hours and then the saddle soreness takes over and all you want to do is lie on blankets and look at the sand dunes and birds, which is exactly what we did. Our guides led us into their nearby village where we admired one's newborn and then I taught rhe kids ranging from 3 to 12 the "hokey pokey." Every time I sang "hokey pokey" they screamed with laughter and I thought it must be a dirty word in Hindi but they were just laughing for the sound of it in their ears.

That night I went with a driver to drop me in Jaisalmer and Mas stayed on, hoping she woul get up the nerve to stay and sleep in the desert. I had the irritating and later amusing experience of checking into a 4 star hotel and ordering chicken, after having no meat for a couple of days and not really liking the food in the small village. The waiter told me the chicken "was finished" but I had a chicken meal an hour later after I ranted to the manager that it was a four star hotel and they must have chicken. He sent someone to the market to get it and even though it took an hour, it was worth it. The fort city of Jaisalmer is beautiful as we looked up at the ramparts from our guesthouse terrace restaurant. But inside the fort is a dirty, smelly, overcrowded place. Unlike its counterparts in Jodphur and Jaipur where the fort has been cleared of people and preserved, the fort in Jaisalmer is decaying due to its drainage system and the effects of overpopulation. Our guide suggsted that the fort is an example of "climate change" on a local scale. Everyone knows that they are destroying the fort but everyone wants to make money while they can and aren't looking at the long-range consequences.

The moghuls built the fort cities out of sandstone in the 1500 and 1600's to last and they mostly have. Invading armies tried to storm the ramparts with elephants but they designed the entrances with many sharp turns at the gates so that it would prove impossible for a charging elephant to make it up the ramp. Inside, the royal families and harems lived in abundance with lots of creativity in the arts being performed. Many of the furnishes included slabs of marble decorated with bird and floral motifs, some with inlaid precious stone. Everything in Rajasthan seems to have been built on a large scale. It''s not surprising when you realize that hundreds of thousands of people have been living here for so many centuries.During Queeen Elizabeth's time, 7 mllion folks lived in Britian while the Indian subcontinent under Akbar the Great had 100 million at the same time.

I certainly more enjoyed imagining living here in the 16th century than currently. I have been reading Paul Theroux's delightful Ghost Train Experience, a replica more or less of the same trip he took through Europe and Asia in 1973, only 33 years later. He writes that he could be a happy Thai but could never be a happy Indian. I feel the same way. A traveler is always imagining whether or not she could actually live in the countries she is experiencing. I think I could be a happy Turk (Turkey, not Turmenistan), Mexcian, Ecuadoran or even South African. I could not live in India though and my reasons are the same. There are simply too many people. With over 1.3 billion India's high population growth results in increasingly impoverished and sub-standard conditions for growing segments of the Indian population. As of 2007, India ranked 126th on the United Nations' Human Development Index, which takes into account social, health, and educational conditions in a country. Population projections for India anticipate that the country's population will reach 1.5 to 1.8 billion by 2050, the resultant poverty and blight make living here a nightmare for most westerners. Many Indians speak about how India is a miracle nation with the strong sector of IT, but most Indians are so obviously being left behind with a huge number of illiterates and truant children that we saw throughout Rajasthan. Besides the grinding poverty, it's virtually impossible to make your way around here in most cities as a pedestrian. I walked maybe 10 blocks in a town called Thrissur in Kerala before stumbling back to my hotel room and in most towns in North India I was grateful to crawl through traffic in a car with our driver at the wheel than try walking.

Of course, the trash and litter here are also challenging for us. I pick up litter every day as a walking meditation and was disappointed when on the last night I offered a candy to our driver Thakur, only to see him reflexively throw the wrapper on the ground. Men piss everywhere outside and it's a common site to see them squatting and peeing, something I've never seen in other countries.

But enough of the harsh realities of visiting India with our mindsets. When I think of my trip here, a thousand images come to mind. Boys flying kites from red sandstone flat roofs--red, blue and green against an overcast sky. Peacocks turning up in the most random places, sometimes roosting in trees.Good roads where cows are allowed free reign and dogs lie in the road and are regularly hit. A fat woman supposedly ready to deliver her baby and being helped by her begging friends and needing money for a taxi. We saw this ploy used twice, as well as a woman with a loose bandage around her arm. In any crowd of Indians, there will several drop dead gorgeous women and girls, as well as men with long, beautiful eyelashes. There was Gabriel, the skinny orthodox Syrian Christian manager at Bird Lagoon resort who one night sang me Hindi poetry he had composed about searching for truth. Or Mohan, the tall and rather charming Nepalese waiter at my guesthouse in Goa who made delicious mojitos and was sure he could convince me to become romantic with him (he was mistaken).

On our last days we visited the Taj Mahal in Agra and even though a dense fog enveloped the scene, I was moved by the almost ghostly white marble image rising up before us. The effect of the symmetry of design and almost human scale (especially after the huge forts we had visited) was quite breathtaking. Add to that the gorgeous painted storks with bright pink rumps in the river directly behind and I was enchanted. It's estimated that over 40,000 folks worked for 22 years to build this tomb to the wife of Shah Jihan who died trying to deliver their 14th child.

The last day in Dehli I visited the site, Gandhi Sitri, where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life before being assasinated in 1948. I studied Gandhi and read some of his works in my early 20's.His philosophy of ahimsa or non-violence has always resonated for me, perhaps even more as I age and see that war and violence never solve anything longterm. After visiting the Taj Mahal, it was in some ways teling to experience the simplicity of the memorial to the father of the nation.. Large signs with quotes from Gandhi line the memorial where one enters and walks barefoot on astroturf to reach the "path of martyrdom" before circling a garden and coming face to face with a marble slab and some words (in Hindi) enscribed. I was moved to tears thinking about Gandhi's life, and much like John Muir and the Hetch Hetchy, the terrible blow of a partitioned India at the end of it. Perhaps only Gandhi could fully realize the longterm strife that would result between India and Pakistan. Inside was a small room where Gandhi's last wordly possessions were on view in a small case. On display were the famous walking stick, a spoon and fork, a pumice stone and a small scythe looking instrument. The five minutes I spent in the room alone was quite moving and reminded me of visiting the prison cell of Mandela on Robben Island.

I had planned to spend my last week around Varanasi on the Ganges River but after being cold for so long, I made the smart decision to come to Goa and its lovely beaches. I spend the days swimming, reading, playing Scrabble and pool---basically being a beach bum. I am in some ways ready to come home but as Paul Theroux so aptly writes, "Travel is the saddest of pleasures" and I'm enjoying the "sadness" right now. I've alternated on this trip from being a traveler to being a tourist. Being a tourist usually means traveling with someone else, and not by public transport. My favorite days on this journey were the ones of chance encounters with Indians and other travelers where I was delighted by a conversation, seeing some new birds or simply being alive on Planet Earth.

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