Sweet Kerala

We have just left Kerala, and not without a bit of sadness. I daresay it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s not without reason that they refer to it here in India as “God’s Own Country”. As my friend in Delhi told me, “South India is green… really green, not these dusty plants like we have here”.  So I apologize in advance for the length of this post…

We started by picking up my 16-year-old sister, Kylie, from the Bangalore airport. We arrived around 4am, on a flight from Rajasthan that involved a terrible 6 hour layover in the Mumbai airport. Kylie arrived about an hour later, then we waited another 5 hours to board a flight to Kochi, and took a 1.5 hour cab ride from the airport to Fort Kochi. Exhaustion!  We enjoyed our time quite a bit despite skipping most of the sights due to severe “heatardism” (as coined by Jeff, i.e., being rendered stupid as a result of high heat and humidity). The first day, we took an auto rickshaw tour for a few hours and saw a neat old spice factory, beautiful temples, and a big area in which all the hotels in the area contract people to do laundry.

 

 

 

 

We ate some lovely food, then dragged poor jet lagged Kylie out to a concert of probably the most sleep inducing music out there: sitar and tabla. Very enjoyable for Jeff and I, though – the two men had never played together, and did some amazing jamming with traditional patterns and beats.

The next day, we returned to the same interesting centre to see some Kathakali dance, a traditional form from this area with crazy makeup and a lot of exaggerated facial movements (ha ha, face dancing). Kylie had done a school project on the dance, so it was neat to see it in person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Kochi, we headed to Munnar. Jeff found a great tour operator on TripAdvisor, and he did not disappoint (for anyone going here, definitely look up Stanley Wilson in Kochi!). On the way, we stopped to see some elephants being bathed, to ride an elephant, and to see a spice and medicinal herb garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Munnar area was an extremely welcome respite from the heat due to its higher altitudes, and is one of the more beautiful places in the state because the hills are covered with spice and tea plantations. The residence we stayed in was amazing – built into the hill in the middle of nowhere, with spectacular views of the vivid green hills and valleys. We met great people, ate like kings, and relaxed our arses off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While in the area, we drove up to top station, the highest point in the Western Ghats (a group of mountains in Southern India), and visited the Tata tea museum. As I have a deep running passion for a strong cup of flavourful tea, I loved this part. We learned how tea is grown and processed, sampled an amazing masala chai, and learned about the cooperative that was formed when the tea company was sold to its workers and is now run from the bottom up.

 

 

On the way back to Kochi, we stopped to buy Kylie a saree, her current plan for her grade 12 graduation outfit. She found one that looked stunning, and was waited on by heaps of doting and excitable staff. I have a picture, but I think Kylie would rather I didn’t post it…

Next was the crowning glory of Kerala: the backwaters. Ahhhhhhh. Only this could compete with the beauty of Munnar. We booked the trip through the same tour operator as Munnar, and it was quality all the way. We were on one of only two boats in the area aside from local fishing and transport boats, and our boats were propelled by two men with long bamboo sticks rather than by motors (which made  us feel like lazy asses). These two days were a whole lot of drinking in the sights of palm trees and slow river life, using the beaten up copy of “birds of India” to attempt to identify some majestic feathered friends (kingfishers and eagles for sure), and more relaxing and eating like kings.  Cheap beer, fresh fish, coconut-infused Keralan-curry, the works. After one night on the boat, we also spent another beside the backwaters at a farmstay.

From there, we hopped a train (Kylie’s first!) to Varkala, a coastal town perched on beautiful red cliffs. We planned on a few nights here and then another few nights in another beach town nearby, but ended up with 8 gloriously lazy days in Varkala. We had a nice hotel with AC (much needed at this time of year) and a sea view, and had been told about a nice restaurant that we ended up visiting at least once per day for organic salads, fresh juice, good coffee, and no curry. I love curry, but was quite excited for the variety. This was a pretty touristy place, but nice for the availability of yoga classes, shopping for hippie goods, massages and pedicures, and swimming and boogie boarding in the massive waves. We all ended up with some injuries – boogie board rope burn, stomach bruising with possible internal bleeding, nipple pain…

A Varkala  highlight for me was playing a show at the “Rock and Roll Café”. It went really well, I think people even came in to hear the music, despite the borrowed guitar that refused to stay in tune. We ended this night by joining a small jam down the street, with great people who were also great musicians.

 

 

 

 

Our final two days were spent in Bangalore, but I can’t say that we really got to know this city well. We wandered down a few market and shopping streets but didn’t do much “touristing”. Instead, we saw a Bollywood take on the Bond franchise: Agent Vinod was highly entertaining, even though it was mostly in Hindi and we didn’t always know what was going on. Kylie got to do some international mall shopping for her birthday, finding some incredibly cute clothes to take back to Canada. We ended with a great Kylie’s 17th-birthday dinner at a recommended restaurant – and the wait for the curry was worth it J

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On the road again…

After 7 more weeks of work in Delhi in January and February, Jeff and I are travelling again. I’m really appreciating my work schedule, since my second work shift was so much shorter than the first of 11 weeks Work has been interesting, and as always I’m learning a lot and love being immersed in the world of evaluation.  On the other hand, it’s hard being in a supportive role -the movement of the projects is totally dependent on others, who do not always have the time, willingness, or ability to take things further. So again, it’s about patience, doing everything you can, but standing back and letting people take things in in their own way. I’m happy, as long as my days remain full.

And then… Rajasthan. What a magical place: palaces and forts, camels and elephants, vibrant music and dancing, women wrapped in the most colourful sarees imaginable, and men sporting bright turbans and huge moustaches.

Right up until the eleventh hour we had a plane ticket booked forGoa, the chilled-out beaches in the Southwest. At 1am the night our flight was supposed to leave, we decided we just could not miss the chance to see Holi in Northern India, where it is really celebrated. So we cancelled the flight and found ourselves in Jaipur that evening.  We stayed in a great hotel with a little pool and garden area, away from the hustle-bustle of the city. They offered a pre-Holi celebration with music, puppets and traditional dance, and we also went to an elephant parade nearby. Highly touristy, but still fun.

On the big day, we “played Holi” with the staff of our hotel and the staff and guests of surrounding places.  Which basically involves throwing a lot of coloured powder paint on each other, yelling “happy Holi!”, dancing around to Indian drum beats, and trying not to let the Indian teenaged boys get too friendly when they hug.  Lots of fun.

Jaipur is a fun and vibrant city, with an amazing palace, a beautiful walled in old city full of pink sandstone, and insane amounts of shopping to be done. We have a box of bedspreads and other textiles waiting for us when we get home. From there, we went to Ranthambore National Park.  Our attempts to see a tiger were in vain, but we did see lots of peacocks, deer and their larger cousin the sambar, monkeys, crocodiles and many birds.  Other run ins with nature included getting head-butted by a cow at the train station – or “gored” as Jeff likes to say. Unfortunately, we lost most of our pictures of this part of the trip 😦

Next, we went back to Jaipur and splashed out on a private car tour of some major stops of Rajasthan – Jaisalmer, the golden city; Jodhpur, the blue city or sun city; and Udaipur, the lake city. We felt a bit indulgent, but soon learned that many people travel the area this way, due to reasonable taxi prices, long distances between towns, and some very cool scenery on the drive. Unfortunately, I was 0 for 2 against the animal kingdom, when we took a camel safari in Jaisalmer and mine tried to throw me off, resulting in major anxiety and some rope burns. Watching the sunset from a crowded but beautiful sand dune made up for it.

Unfortunately, the rest of this leg of the trip was dominated by an awful ear infection, which brought stabbing pain to one ear, a fever, and partial deafness.  I visited an ENT specialist and paid about $5 for a consultation and a ton of medications – the pain and fever have mostly abated, but I’m still quite deaf.

We are now in Kerala, in Southern India… more on that next time, and some more rajasthan pictures to follow at some point.

Highlights from Thailand and Vietnam

I took a bit of a break from my computer last month, while travelling around Thailand and Vietnam. I met up with my man Jeff and his brother Jesse, as well as some other friends and family along the way. We started in Koh Samui on the Southeast coast of Thailand, headed a bit north to Koh Tao, made our way by boat and plane to Saigon in Vietnam (aka Ho Chi Minh City), with a few days in Mui Ne, flew to Danang and Hoi An in time for Christmas, then farther North to Hue, Hanoi, Sapa, Bac Ha and Halong Bay.  We saw some great things, and had some good times.   We were all learning to use Jeff’s new Canon G12 camera –I’m still sorting through a couple thousand pictures.  I’ve linked to the first album in facebook, along with descriptions of the trip…

Facebook album southeast asia

Here are some highlights:

  • Amazing cheap massages right on the beach in Koh Samui.
  • Dancing all night at the full moon party … after a few too many buckets.
  • A very rough ride from Koh Samui to Koh Tao on a speedboat… roughly half of the boat tossed their cookies. Jesse and I barely made it out unscathed, Jeff did not.
  • Learning to dive in Koh Tao, doing some underwater chicken dancing with Jesse, meeting great new friends like James and Caroline, and watching it all on video once we got certified – there`s a copy waiting for me at home that I paid way too much for. I was drunkenly talking about how I`m rich now and need to be a `benefactor of the arts`.
  • Yummmmmy Thai food – including pad thai for a buck.
  • Watching the visual symphony that is thousands upon thousands of motorcycles on the streets of Saigon… with many of the riders or their kids dressed as Santa.
  • Meeting up with Roy, Hawa, Alicia, Sam, Archer, Onion/Boris, and Clay in Mui Ne.  Loved spending time with the rambunctious kids who are all smart as a whip, eating great seafood with Vietnamese flavours, and seeking out near-daily massages. Boris` surgery and the resulting video are a standout. Another stand out is the night in the crazy Vietnamese club… think strobe lights, mind-blowingly loud music, bottle service, and plenty of enthusiastic locals.
  • Vietnam in general… what a great country. The food, the funny and friendly people, and the beauty. Jesse, and eventually Jeff  and I as well, made a lot of friends by making a big effort to learn Vietnamese… it made for a lot of laughs, and we got pretty good after a while!  We also referred to Vietnam as the “cute factory“, because everywhere you looked were the cutest kids you have ever seen. We could barely contain ourselves.
  • Though we spent some of our time in Hoi An wandering the streets lined with beautiful old French-inspired buildings, over half was spent Hoi An in B’Lan’s tailor shop, and being adopted by our tailor and her family as a result! They let us stay in their guesthouse for free – Jeff and Jesse are there now, on the tail end of the Tet celebrations. The karaoke night was the best part – both B’Lan and her husband are brilliant singers. And our rendition of “Sweet Caroline” wasn’t too bad either.
  • New Years in Hue… everyone was ambivalent about going out, but we ended up at the “Brown Eyed Bar”, met some great people and did some dancing to cheesy tunes.
  • A motorcycle tour in Hue – what a great way to travel in Vietnam, especially being on the back and not having to worry too much about the other crazy drivers. Saw beautiful pagodas, tombs, and a covered Japanese bridge.
  • Shivering under our blankets and enjoying some serious HBO time in Sapa – I know I’m Canadian, and tend to exaggerate, but I swear that is the coldest I’ve ever felt.
  • Running away from the pushy lady trying to push her tribal crafts on us, who always seemed to be waiting outside of her hotel, and starting cackling madly as she chased us.
  •  When we weren’t shivering in Sapa, joining our guide Sonny on a tour down the mountain into the hill tribe villages for some views of classic rice terraces. The best was that he was armed with plenty of candy, and would call out to the kids in the villages as we passed by to come and get some – these kids went crazy for it, and we got to feel like we won their heart. Sonny also managed to save us from other pushy ladies selling things.
  • Though tainted by tourism and souvenirs, the market in Bac Ha had many corners that were still pretty `legit` (as Jesse would say). Jeff got some great pics of a water buffalo deal going down, and Jesse got some homemade knives for camping. Jeff made friends with a six year old, who was quite enthralled with his beard, and also pointed back and forth from Jeff`s chest hair to the monkey on his shirt, showing the comparison.
  • More great friends in Hanoi, especially our friend Dao, who worked in our hotel and is the kindest, sweetest soul you ever met.
  • Kayaking through Halong Bay, including going through some caves.
  • Sitting in the bar by the pool of the gorgeous Metropole hotel feeling rich and beautiful…

In 5 weeks, I`ll be travelling around India, with Jeff and my 16-year-old sister Kylie. In the meantime, starting to see some good blog-worthy results at work. Till next time…

At the 4 week mark

It’s been a while since I wrote last  …  I realized that I have been here almost 4 weeks, so a good time to update everyone on how things are going.

First, I’ll talk about a few interesting cultural experiences I’ve had.  The first was on Thursday, October 6, the Dussehra festival (see http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/india/dussehra). This is a festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil, or when the Hindu God Rama triumphed over the evil king Ravana. One of the ways it’s celebrated is by burning very large statues of Ravana and other evil villains.   Me and my housemate Dougal very much wanted to see this, but were not exactly sure where or whent this would happen on Thursday night, so we ended up on a wild goosechase throughout the city. Like, left one area of the city by metro, hopped in an auto rickshaw, and ended up in pretty much the same place we had just left by metro.  We waited in a long line, and pushed our way through the gates with hundreds of very excited Indians. In addition to the statues being burnt, the grounds had some rickety-looking ferris wheels and other rides. You’ll see a picture of a big villain head on the back of a truck and some burning in the photo album for this post.   I also got to see part of the Ramlila, a play stretched over 10 days telling this story, when I was here last year, there’s a few pictures in this photo album on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150278216030574.498117.655905573&type=1&l=26bb9d7599

Earlier, that day we also visited Jantar Mantar, an astronomical park in the middle of Delhi built in the 1700’s.  The park is filled with large red stone astronomical instruments.  For example, a sun dial the size of a small house. Very neat.

Another great thing I got to do in the last while was to visit the tomb of Nizamuddin, a Sufi saint.  Sufism is defined as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam, and music is a big part of their faith. Me and a few others went to see the qawwali music that happens there every Thursday. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawwali) It was amazing … winding our way through the narrow marble halls of the building,sitting under the nearly-full moon in the open air next to the tomb with a large group of worshippers, and listening to the beautiful singing and drumming. I’ve included a “stock photo” of the same men that we saw singing.

The rest of the time, I have mostly been working. There were a few people visiting last week to deliver a workshop on program evaluation.  See the attached picture from our field trip to buy spices from one of my favourite markets: Brad Cousins, visiting from Ottawa (who hired me), Darleen Opfer, visiting from Philidelphia, and Barbara Rosenstein, visiting from Israel. My office hosted this, and it was attended by staff at various levels of the educational sector from all over India. I was busy with some other work, but attended most afternoons and also delivered one session on an example evaluation from India. These and a few other professors and PhD-level evaluators will be involved in guiding the planning for the evaluations I will support this year.  Great learning experience for me!  Looks like we will be doing a few studies and engaging people from quite a few different states all over India.  We will likely be evaluating teacher training, offering mid-day meals to children, and changing assessment systems.  I’m ready to dig in 🙂

I’m struggling with trying to figure out how to embed my photos in my blog, rather than having it all in a gallery at the end. Any tips from blogger friends would be helpful!  In the meantime, here’s some pictures. Keep your eye out for a recruitment poster for extras for a Bollywood film (with a colourful plot description), and the elephant I happened upon while driving to work.

Settling in…

Two weeks since my arrival here in Delhi.  I’ve been enjoying many things here, especially the ultra-quiet life in my apartment. And the fact that, even though traffic is utterly insane, it’s not me behind the wheel!

Work is going well, though I am discovering just how difficult it is to be in the role of “consultant” and responsible for “capacity-building” and therefore not completely in control of a project.  I ended the first half-week here almost manic in my excitement of all the things I will do to steer the project in the right direction this year.  I still intend to aim for that, but in any setting it is important to sit back, listen and learn, before attempting to steer anything.

Regardless, I am still very happy to be involved in the project.  I spent a lot of time reading about education in India, the changes made in the last decade or so with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, the caste system, and the attempts to integrate Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes into mainstream society (essentially through affirmative action, just as controversial here as in North America from what I can tell).

A lovely weekend as well… after doing some work on Saturday, me and my current housemate Dougal ventured out to our favourite market, the Dilli Haat. We’ve been informed by our coworkers that it is a tourist trap and overpriced, but we can’t seem to find the same quality and type of things in any other market. I picked up a great bracelet and a beautiful silk bedspread. We also got to see a Saudi Arabian band, part of Saudi Cultural week in Delhi, and some kind of anti-corruption theatre performance (in Hindi, but still entertaining for us).

On Sunday, we headed to the centre of town.  On the way there, we somehow found ourselves in the middle of a large group of people walking with luggage on their heads. One man managed to stop traffic by holding up a large flag. Not an easy feat in Delhi.

There is a booksale in this part of town every Sunday. Booksellers lay out books of every type imaginable, for very reasonable prices. I bought a favourite Tom Robbins in hardcover, an APA style manual to give as a gift to the office (the research officer I share an office with was quite excited), and a Carl Hiaason novel, all for about $10.  Halfway through, we sought refuge in an old imperial-style hotel with lots of air-conditioning, good snacks and coffee, and some funny eastern-european tourists that were taking pictures of everything – including the bathroom.  Not that I’ve never done that 😉

Getting Re-acquainted

 

So it’s Sunday, and my first weekend here. I’m feeling a bit ‘blah’ today, despite having had my first good sleep since arriving.  I think now that I’m human again (rather than a jet-lagged robot), the reality is setting in: “Ack – what have I done?!”. It’s quite a thing to be so far from friends and family. Not that there isn’t great people here, who are turning into close friends and companions.  But the environment here is a bit jarring, to say the least.  And it’s been a year since I was here last, so I don’t have my “sea legs” quite yet. Here is what I have to work on getting used to so I can again find the zen attitude I had when I left Delhi last November:

  • Traffic! Bad enough to be in a car, but walking is positively scary. There are really sidewalks to speak of, and cars make no effort to accomodate you to cross or even walk along the road. Instead, they honk. And speed up.
  • Smells!  This won’t surprise anyone about India. But they might be interested to know that there is a completely open sewage system right near my apartment. Referred to by my roomate as “the disgusting canal”.  A useful landmark to help find one’s way around the neighbourhood, but surprising given that this is one of the more swank neighbourhoods in Delhi.
  • Groceries… Where the heck do I find the food that they actually eat here?  This is surely just a product of living near a market that specializes in imports, so I can find a lot of things I recognize but pay exorbitant amounts of money for them. We currently have a maid who we can pay to cook for us, but she’ll be away for a while so I want to take the chance to become a bit more independent.  I’ll have to stumble on some better places to find food before then!

Anyway, had a nice day yesterday. Me and my roomate (a man from the UK also working here as a consultant for about 3 weeks at a time) went shopping. He wanted a blouse for his wife, I just wanted to look around and maybe find some more clothes for work.  We had a few interesting happenings, including him getting felt up by a Hijra (a he-she, or member of the third gender – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijra_%28South_Asia%29), and taking the slowest auto rickshaw in Delhi and worrying we wouldn’t make it up any hill we came across. We successfully found some nice shirts for his wife, and a beautiful rust-coloured pashmina for me.  Which I wore out to dinner, despite the fact that it was 30 degrees.

Before the shopping trip, I met my landlady and landlord for the first time. They are a couple both in their 80’s and originally from Pakistan. They fled during the partition, because they are Hindu and it was becoming a Moslem country. He was a soldier who fought in a few wars, including 2 years in Italy during World War II.  They are a lovely and welcoming couple, and I feel quite lucky to get the chance to meet them and see their home. I am planning to return to their house sometime this week, so I can play guitar and sing for them, and she can play her synthesizer!  Should be quite the concert.

I’ve attached some pictures of my apartment – enjoy!