Two days in Tea Country

January 27, 2008

For those who haven’t been following my blog, I’m staying in Thrivanthapuram this month. I’m here on business but I’ve been doing a decent job at finding things to entertain myself here in, “God’s Own Country”.

Of course, the company I’m working with has made that task very easy for me. A few days ago they asked if I would be interested in visiting Munnar, the highest region in southern India, and touring the tea fields there. …Naturally I said yes, how could anyone pass up on that?

The ride to Munnar was long, and for me, basically uneventful. We got off to an early start (a car picked me up at my hotel around 5:30am) and I slept through most of the trip.

Occasionally I would wake up to the sound of honking horns and swerving tires as our car narrowly avoided yet another collision with a huge bus. I’d send a few moments wondering at the India highway system and our driver’s well honed Halo-Slayer like reactions, then dose off again. I suppose I should have been more alarmed at the perilous road conditions but by now I was used to it. I trusted our driver.

Below is a picture of one of the nicest roads we encountered. Occasionally we’d hit a sweet-spot like this, the rest of the time we were roughing it on a bumpy narrow roads filled with cattle, bikers, pedestrians pushing carts and huge busses racing around at ludicrous speed.

Between Trivandrum and Munnar we passed countless pineapple fields. I’ve been told pineapple farming is a very lucrative business. By the appearance of things that’s probably true. The lavish homes adjacent to most of these fields seemed really out of place.

Every time I see a pineapple I think about a fable my grandmother/parents used to read me, “The Pineapple Story” by Otto Koning. If you have kids it’s worth a read. Aside from a bit of morality, this taught me that pineapple plants are bromeliads.

Bromeliads are a special kind of flower; fruit pops up in the middle when they bloom instead of a traditional blossom. Another cool pineapple fact; they’re commonly pollinated by bats. …I guess that explains why I’ve seen so many of them flying around here.

I probably already wrote about the local bats but they deserve a second mention. Dusk in Thrivanthapuram ushers in a nightly ritual; scores of huge bats flying into town to raid the fruit trees. And these bats aren’t like the tiny blind variety we have back in the US, these are Flying Foxes. Full grown they have a wingspan in excess of 4ft! And they don’t fly with sonar; they use their eyes (how original).

Almost every night I go down to the lobby to watch them crashing into the tree across the street from my hotel. They look clumsy, but I’m sure they’re in perfect control.

I read online that we used to have lots of these bats in the Americas. Apparently people hunted them for food to the point where they’re very scarce now. That’s a shame because pineapples aren’t the only things bats pollinate. They also do their thing for flowers that open at night, bananas, mangoes and guavas.

(Think flower)

Just before ascending the mountains we passed over this beautiful bridge. The contrasting red with the blue sky and green foliage accents was picturesque. My digital camera really didn’t do this justice but this gives you a glimpse at what I saw…

About an hour up the mountain we passed this building (picture below) and I just had to take a picture. I wondered, does this girl realize she’s throwing the universal sign for loser? I later learned that gesture means #1 in India. …Of course that’s what I tell people it means after I throw them the sign to in the US. Maybe this is a global joke only half of the population is in on.

I don’t really want to re-live the memory of our ascent so I won’t spend a lot of time writing about it, it’s sufficient to say that the road to Munnar was quite dangerous. Imagine riding in a small SUV on the road below when the driver starts to pass a huge bus only to find another bus headed towards you in the other lane. We had more hair-raising moments then I care to remember.

We finally arrived in Munnar 13+ hours after leaving Thrivanthapuram. I was thrilled to see that our hotel was situated in the middle of a basin on the top of the highest mountain in South India, surrounded by peaks that soared into the clouds.

The interior of the hotel was nice and elegant, a little neglected but probably only due to a lack of use rather than misuse. …I think it’s very expensive for the locals to stay here.

Walking to my room I noticed a flock of groundskeepers trimming the lawn with scissors. As you can see they do a good job…

After being shown to my room I rested for a few minutes and then strolled on over to the hotel pub where I was met by my German traveling companions for a pint of Sand Piper. …I think already mentioned in my blog about the backwaters that I tried the Kingfisher Preimum, and that it wasn’t my favorite. To be honest, I thought it was lousy beer (much appriciated though on a hot day).

Well, In India I’ve only seen two bottles: Kingfisher Premium and Sand Piper. As I lifted the bottle to my lips I wondered how Sand Piper would compare to Kingfisher. …Moments later I realized the purpose of the Sand Piper. It gives you respect and appriciation for the Kingfisher. Sand Piper, in my not-so-humble opinion, is one of the worst beers I’ve ever tried. Even still we were happy to have it.

After a few minutes I stepped away to use the restroom. On returning I noticed the Germans glued to the window with their camera. “Quick Brien! We found a snake!”. I lept into action racing around the building out onto the lawn and around the corner.

I’d been hoping to catch a snake while in India, or at least touch one. I’d moved as quickly as possible, but unfortunatly the serpent had already slithered into the tea plants before I’d got close enough. I decided not to follow since it had the upperhand in the tea plants which blocked my view of the ground. In hidesight I wish I’d have risked it. Things being what they are, all I have to show for this encounter is a picture one of the Germans took from inside the pub.

Just to give you an idea of how close we were to the snake, here’s a picture of the scenario…

So, after another pint we called it quits and retired for the evening. Before going to sleep I turned on the TV and caught an episode of StarWars (the Indian version of American Idol). That was thoroughly entertaining and almost made up for missing out on the snake.

The next morning we woke up and, after a quick breakfast, headed out for a tour of the tea fields…

In case you’re wondering what those dots are; they’re locals picking tea leafs. In the picture below it’s a little easier to make them out…

Two things impressed me about the tea fields; 1) they are beautifully landscaped with the local rocks, trees, etc. and 2) they are huge, 220 square miles of tea.

In the distance you can see a slick streak running down the solid rock mountain side. Apparently that’s raging river during the monsoon season. That must be impressive when it’s flowing. Pitty it wasn’t while I was here.

Next we headed up to Eravikulam National Park, home of free roaming ibex, elephants, lion-tailed macaque, and the Nilgiri tahr. …We only saw the goats. Though they were wild, they weren’t afraid of humans. I strolled up to one and had a nice little chat with it…

I named the goat below Maddan, after one of my favorite co-workers. Maddan didn’t talk a lot and neither did this goat, so it seemed like a good fit.

Back to my trip, next we headed northeast about 35km to the Munnar reservoir. I wish I had a picture of that, but unfortunately my camera was out of batteries, c’est la vie (that’s life).

A few miles up the road from the reservoir we spotted an elephant. Our driver stopped and I bought a ride.

(Photo courtesy of my German comrade Olaf)

Yes, that’s me on a 5 ton (10,000 pound) elephant. I’ve had the pleasure of riding elephants two other times in my life, but this was the first time I was able to ride on a public road with cars and other elephants. It was defiantly worth the 200 rupees (5 dollars) I paid.

The elephant’s manager didn’t speak English, but somehow I made out the elephants name, Eknath Raja (which means poet king). After my ride I threw down another 50 rupees (1 dollar and 25 cents) for an entire basket of pineapples which I fed to Eknath. That was a little intimidating because he immediately wrapped his trunk around my arm and the pineapple. Suddenly I remembered all the stories I’d read about elephants dismembering people and horrible thoughts flashed through my mind. But an instant later untangled his trunk from my arm and gracefully put the ripe pineapple in his mouth. Feeding him a whole basket didn’t take long, he ate each pineapple in a few seconds. It was so entertaining I had to buy two baskets.

Leaving the elephant we stopped at a roadside bazaar a few km up the road. One of the stands there was a balloon shootout with a .22 caliber BB gun. Target practice was a favorite family activity in the home I grew up in. Even when my parents were first married they had a shoot-offs to see who’d clean the dishes. But even with my extensive experience I knew showing up the locals wouldn’t be easy. I could see the sights were off at a glance. Fortunately the rifle had a long barrel, and I’m comfortable aiming with that. I threw down a couple of rupees and popped all but two balloons, taking only a few seconds to aim between each shot. Mission accomplished, locals impressed.

We left the bazaar and continued driving north-east until we stopped at a dirt trail. We hiked that out of Kerala and into the next state over (I think it was Karnataka). Below is a view from the end of the trail. After the hike we returned to our hotel and retired for the evening.

The next morning we awoke early and headed back for Trivandrum. On our way back we stopped to at the Kuthumkal waterfalls, something we’d missed during our ascent.

(I think I’ve seen this waterfall in Bollywood movies before)

We left after a few minutes and continued our descent. Everything was going smoothly, until our driver decided to pull over for a quick stop at a spice garden. Apparently he missed a cement ledge that was camouflaged with red sand. There was a loud thud as the SUV’s frame slammed into the cement.

First the driver tried to drive off the ledge, the wheel simply spun in mid air. Then, very nervously, he exited the vehicle and inspected the damage. We follow suit.

Once again, this time without us in the car, the driver attempted to drive off the ledge. Seeing the futility in that (and possible destructive consequences) I suggested he jack the car up then stack stones under the tire until it was (near) flush with the ledge so he could just back up.

Noticing the pile of granite rocks behind me our driver took my advice and sent us off to enjoy the spice garden while he fixed the car. I offered to stay back and help, but he insisted so I didn’t protest. So we left him to do his thing and proceeded to check out the spice garden.

A gardener soon noticed us wondering around and proceeded to give us a tour of the garden. I sampled so many spices, fresh from the plant, that I can’t remember them all. I remember; cinnamon, various peppers, vanilla, coffee, paprika, tamarind, curry leaf, clove, kokum and turmeric but I can’t remember the rest.

Aside from spices they also had flowers, these were some of my favorites…

(These flowers are called Cross Flowers because they bloom into little crosses)

(And these flowers are called Cigar Flowers look like little cigars.)

The garden also had fruits. Next we toured those…

(These are Bell Fruit, I loved these! They tasted something like an apple fused with a cranberry)

(These fruit, proudly displayed by our tour guide, are called Passion Fruit.)

(This is a picture of the Passion Fruit I ate just before I sucked the inside out. It looks nasty, but they taste like a blend of Pomegranates and Oranges. I liked it!)

This is the home of the gardeners who gave us our tour, it’s set at the northwest corner of the garden…

Eventually we left the spice garden (apparently the jack/granite trick worked) and made our way back down the mountain. At the bottom we stopped for a quick bite at The Copper Chimney, a nice second-floor open-air restaurant.

(Two of my German traveling companions, Olaf and Mr Schneider pictured above enjoying the view. …Possibly celebrating that they survived the descent.)

I had some kind of “sweet-water” fish for lunch (below). It was sort of bony, but I was so hungry it really hit the spot. The fresh onions and cucumber went great with the spicy marsala fish dish. I’m really going to miss the plentiful fresh fruit when I go back to the US.

This morning I decided to spend the day at the beach. I’ve been working hard (don’t forget I’m in India on business) and I really needed a reboot and defrag. So I did just that; after rolling out of bed and enjoying a fine authentic Kerala breakfast I caught a $5 auto-rickshaw to Kovalam.

I don’t remember that much about the ride to the beach. I might have left my laptop back in the hotel but my mind was still deep in the matrix. Fortunately that all changed when the rickshaw stopped.

As I strolled onto the sand I spotted a street vendor pushing coconuts. Having recently acquired a taste for the local delicacy I had to stop. For a mere 15 rupees (30 cents) an old lady with a toothless smile cut me some fresh coconut water and threw a straw in it.

Before sipping my tasty beverage I removed my shoes and tossed them in my attaché bag. Then I closed my eyes welcomed the salty sea air with a smile. There are few things I enjoy more than the feeling of sand between my toes and the smell of the sea. Add a sweet coconut and the list is even shorter.

I wondered aimlessly along the shore with a Zen-like satisfaction, letting the hot sand work at my sore feet, occasionally cooling them down in the surf.

Eventually I gave that up and basked on a rock until I was hot and hungry. About a hundred yards from the water I spotted a restaurant on the sand and made a b-line for it. After being seated I ordered King Fisher Premium (the local beer of choice) and some garlic Naan (soft thin Tandoori bread). I don’t think establishment had a license to serve because they poured my beer in a coffee mug, put the bottle under the table and told me to leave it there.
Maybe the consequences are less severe here? Maybe competition for tourist dollars is so critical the consequences aren’t taken into consideration? I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I didn’t care. The sea breeze was blowing on my red sun-kissed face; I had a beer in one hand and garlic bread in the other. I’d earned this moment and I was going to enjoy it without analyzing life.

From my table this was the view to my right…

And this was the view to my left…

All around me were babbling tourists speaking what sounded like everything but English. I could make out German, possibly Dutch and Korean, but I wasn’t sure about the rest. Even though I couldn’t understand their language the smiles on their faces and mixed laughter told me we were all enjoying our day in Kovalam.

After polishing off two plates of garlic bread and a liter of Kingfisher I went for a walk along the boardwalk. After a few minutes the zealous trinket-pushers got the best of me. I decided to chill out under an umbrella for a while and enjoy the sound of the breaking waves.

Apparently I was being watched as I approached one of the reclining chairs. An attendant rushed to beat me there, picked up the chair and beat off the sand for me. He put it back on the sand with a smile and asked if there was anything he could do for me in broken English. I told him he could have a nice day and threw a few rupees his way. Then I stretched out on the chair and drifted off into a nice nap to the sound of the sea.

I awoke to the squawking of some large British ladies waddling past my umbrella. Realizing it was getting late I decided to head back to my hotel.

Exiting the beach I found myself being surrounded by a heard of taxi drivers competing for my business. I spent about a minute haggling over the price, but I wasn’t really looking for a deal. I was planning on paying a lot more than I bargained for, but I wanted to give my money to the person who needed it most; the desperate low bidder.

I had to focus to suppress my smile while I tried to get the locals to go from 300 rupees (7 dollars and 60 cents) to 150 rupees (which is what I’d paid to get here). The lowest I could manage was 220 rupees (which I later learned is the going rate due to extra taxes in Kovalam). Moments later my rickshaw roared to life and we were off.

I didn’t mention this before, but Kovalam beach is at the bottom of a steep hill. The ride down had been easy enough, but now I could feel the rickshaw struggling to crawl up the hill.

Finally we cleared the top and started picking up speed, soon were racing along at a good clip. I decided this was a good time to take some photos so grabbed my camera and started snapping away. A few minutes later I ran into this lovely family of four riding a Honda Hero…

Notice that everyone was smiling at me except the little boy in the front. He’s undoubtedly angry his dad wasn’t paying attention to where he was driving, can you blame him?

All along the road I passed countless fruit peddlers. Seeing the watermelon salesman below a thought struck me; if he doesn’t sell all of those he’s going to have to pack them up later tonight. That’s a lot of lifting. Of course, Indian’s aren’t afraid of hard work or lifting. And this isn’t only a trait of the young adults or those in their prime.

Checkout this seasoned citizen carrying a big metal tub filled with bananas. I’ve seen women that looked ancient doing all kinds of hard work here. It sort of makes me wonder if American seniors haven’t gone soft.

I’d expected to see a lot of bananas in India, but I hadn’t anticipated the variety. The stand below only had 7 different kinds, but there are even more. On the right those are red bananas, they’re not over-ripe that’s simply their color. I’ve also seen and tasted black ones. There are also a lot of various sizes; the tiny ones make great bite-sized snacks.

This is what a fruit laden banana tree looks like. …Technically they’re pseudo-stems not trees, but everybody here (including yours truly) calls them trees.

One of the odd things about Kerala is the stark contrast between rich and poor families. Below is a typical rural home…

But every so often I’d pass one that looked like this…

This mixture of wealth and poverty is also quite evident in the market. Below in the distance you can see a posh retailer. In the foreground a much more typical fruit stand is being setup.

Yeah, the ride from Kovalam was full of all kinds of sights. Seeing a second person riding side-saddle on a bicycle is very common here…

And checkout the cripple below on his moded moped, someone added an extra wheel. He looked like the king of the road as he smiled and raced past us. …I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever had a cripple smile at me in the US? …I don’t think I have, most of them come off as very bitter.

Actually, if a countries worth was measured in smiles rather than dollars India might top the list. I’m really going to miss that back in the US. I think we have a lot to learn from our Indian brothers, I wish everyone in the US could spend a month here.

One day at work during lunch a co-worker asked if I’d like to visit the Kerala Backwaters. I wasn’t sure exactly what that was, but on John’s recommendation I said yes.

I soon learned that the Kerala Backwaters are a series of brackish lagoons (a mixture of saltwater and freshwater) formed by rivers and streams of the mainland as they fuse with the Arabian Sea.

Don’t bother looking on Google maps for them because this place, like so many other wonderful places in India, it isn’t listed. I stole this map from Wikipedia to give you an idea of what they look like…

Due to their massive size and location relative to the equator tide changes are almost undetectable. That combined with plentiful fish and topical weather has made this an ideal place to live throughout the ages.

In fact, according to most historians, around the 100BC when the first Greek and Roman traders visited Malabar (now known as Kerala) they dubbed this “The Venice of the East”. …One can only imagine that at the time Venice was much more similar then that modern city is today.

Today life on the Kerala Backwaters doesn’t seem to have changed that much. At least it hasn’t for many people who still live in the small huts of villages that dot the shoreline. There are of course modern resorts now; fully furnished with AC and all the necessary modern conveniences. But I digress, back to me and my trip…

The drive to Kollam was a bit of a journey, as most road trips are in India. Traffic here lacks the rules and order of western infrastructure, but what they lack in guidelines they seem to make up for with common sense. With few signs, lights or stripes on the road Indians defer to their personal judgment and do a fine job of getting from A to B with much less drama then one would expect.

Upon arriving in Kollam we strolled unto the nicest boat in the backwaters and got comfortable while the crew stocked supplies and prepared for our trip. This is what the boat looked like…

After a few minutes we were given Coconuts with straws in them to sip while we passed the time. I took my first drink expecting milk only to be surprised by a sweet-somewhat-salty flavor. That didn’t go with that mental image, but I believe in trying everything at least twice, so I chanced another sip. This time the flavor met my expectations and I soon realized how much I enjoyed coconut water.

As we pushed off shore and cruised out to the open water Amit (an employee of the company I’m working with here) started talking shop with John (my traveling companion and co-worker) about our project. I kept to myself, enjoying all the new sights and sounds.

Glancing around I spotted what looked like an elementary school built on the shoreline, it looked pretty great. There were plenty of trees to provide ample coverage from the sun, lots of room to play tag, places to relax along the water, even a roller skating ring!

What an awesome setting for a school. My good buddy Derek and I would have killed to go to school here when we were chillen.

Looking towards the other side of the water I spotted a series of restaurants cast in the shadows of the hot morning sun. Just behind a railing that snaked along the shore was a series of tables speckled with patrons enjoying their meals. The picture (below) really doesn’t do the scene justice. (My camera really failed me on this trip. It’s just a compact digital and obviously my hand did a poor job of shielding the CCD from the glare of the sun).

I was surprised how clean the water was. I thought it looked dingy in the picture above so I decided to take a close up (below). It’s green of course because of the ample life in the lagoon, but honestly it looked very clean and inviting.

About this time the crew distributed some King Fisher Premium, one of India’s “premium” beers. It wasn’t my favorite pint, but it really hit the spot.

After a few sips I was very relaxed, soon John and I found ourselves in the middle of a heated discussion about PC security. John claimed his XP machine was “secure enough for most businesses” while I took the position that it was one of the biggest failures in IT security. Adding that Vista was the only Microsoft OS I recommended for businesses.

I love talking geek, especially with someone brilliant like John, but I’m constantly amazed at how little some/most people know about Vista. I think penguin lovers (Linux users) and fruit cakes (Apple users) are blinded by their rebellious nature, but I digress. Getting back to my trip…

In the distance I saw what looked like a small version of the statue of liberty rising from the shore-line. Upon closer inspection I realized it was in-fact, “The Goddess of Light” (pictured below). Having been lost on large lakes before I can only imagine how helpful this is on a moonless night. I would have loved to stop at the adjacent hotel and learned more about its history and myth, but we had to push on.

A little further along the way I spotted what looked like an empty canoe. As we approached a head popped out of the water. Apparently this local fisherman was hot and wanted to go for a dip. I can’t blame him; the brackish water was very inviting.

Another real treat was watching this ancient canoe sailing along. I’ve read about these sailboats in history books, I’ve even seen a few in museums. That was nothing compared to watching one in action.

Apparently these sailboats aren’t complicated to build, one simple needs to find a large tree and burn/carve/hack out a channel to sit in. If there are no large trees, you can bind thick reeds with thin ones. People have been making boats just like this one since the dawn of written history, and they’ve been used to sail just about everywhere.

The next familiar site was a series of fishing nets (above). Judging by the color of the water one can only assume that the fish here have an ample supply of phytoplankton. I’ve eaten a lot of fish on this trip, I’ll bet at least one of them came from this place.

It seems fishing here is very popular. Below are some fishing boats owned by Amma (a local spiritual leader and “universal mother” to millions). I don’t know that much about Amma, but I’ve only heard good things. Apparently she’s fed over 7.5 million people (among many other good things) and still lives in a humble home, so I’m going to give her charity the benefit of the doubt.

In the distance below you can see one of the many temples, churches and mosques built along the shoreline. I was keeping track of how many there were, but I lost count. Some of them were playing pleasant Hindi music, others were silent. Closing my eyes I tried to imagine what it would be like to paddle to church. …That made me smile. My family was usually late and rushing to get to church on-time. I my mind I could see my brothers and I padding tirelessly to try and get to temple on time.

Eventually we rounded this corner and floated into a narrow channel, about 30 meters (100ft) wide. There really isn’t a point to the picture below, I just thought it did a fair job of representing the tropical setting I found myself in.

As you can see (below) we spent almost the entire trip chatting, snacking on spicy cashews and sipping King Fisher Premium, naturally I thoroughly enjoying myself.

In the picture above Amit was telling John why he returned to India. Apparently Amit lived in the states for some time, and his brothers still live there now. I was curious why someone leave the US so I listened attentively as Amit told of his love for India, his family/friends here and his passion for giving back to the place he came from. Hearing this Amit’s stock went up in my book. I dig people who are crazy enough to follow their heart, especially when that comes at a high price.

Above you can see a family of four pushing their canoe along with long poles. When the water is shallow enough this is how the locals get around, it looks a lot easier than paddling.

The picture above shows one of the more common views on this trip. This glimpse into the local’s word gives you an idea what life must be like here. In the long grass by the water are children at play, in the background a simple cinderblock house. Most the homes here cinderblocks or cement, a few were wooden. The more meager abodes were simply made of palms like the one pictured below…

Below are a few more of the local sights, honestly life here looked pretty inviting to me…

One thing I wasn’t thrilled to see was that, even on the backwaters, communist (Marxist) propaganda was quite prevalent. Personally I’m very opposed to socialism in general, especially this flavor. I think Marxist prey on the uneducated and misinformed. Then again I’m very pro-expression so I appreciate their freedom to share views and opinions.

Every once in a while we’d pass by a small group of the locals. Usually they’d stop to wave and smile. I wish we’d had time to stop and mingle, they probably spoke Malayalam instead of English but I think we could have managed. …That’s defiantly on my TODO list for the next trip.

Eventually we stopped the boat at a dock adjacent to a simple church. They had a well and we ran out a garden hose to refill our boat’s fresh water tank.

We hadn’t been still for 10 minutes when John asked the locals if it was safe to swim. They seemed shocked but he was already undressing before he got an answer. Without hesitating he dove off the boat plunging into the cool green water.

John stayed underwater for some time. After a long 20-30 seconds I was starting to wonder if he hadn’t got stuck on the muddy bottom or been impaled on a sharp stick. But apparently he was playing with our minds, a few moments later he popped his head back up and we all exhaled. I have to admit that I was completely jealous of John. It was hot and, as I already mentioned, the water looked very inviting. …I told myself I didn’t jump in after him because I’d promised my sister that I wouldn’t swim in India. …I’d like to think that was the only reason, but I’m not sure I would have even if I hadn’t made that promise.

After John had tried off and we’d settled down lunch was served. I was pleased to learn that our crew included a local gourmet chef. I thought his spicy fish fillet (pictured bottom-center) was especially tasty. The carrot/pepper/etc veg item (pictured top-center) was a foreign melody of flavors that I really enjoyed. I want to try cooking something like that back home.

After lunch we returned to wondering the water ways. It’s difficult to make-out, but that dirt along the shoreline above was a road with people, cattle and motorcycles. Seeing someone my age ripping along the pathway made me realize that I would love to tour the backwaters on a dirt-bike. Unfortunately I’ve found it almost impossible to borrow a bike here, maybe next trip I’ll just buy one.

Well, that’s about it for pictures. I decided to put the camera down to enjoy what I supposed might be a once in a lifetime experience. I spent most of the ride back in silence, listening to the music pouring down from the nearby temples, watching children play along the shore and wondering through the ship’s guest log. It was filled with a variety of languages and pictures, even some mirror writing. Reading between the lines I could understand every page, “We had a great time!”

My first day in India

January 6, 2008

My flight from Dubai (DXB) to Trivandrum, India (TRV) was uneventful. I couldn’t go to sleep but an excellent grilled lamb dish helped pass the time. Eventually I wound up getting into a heated discussion over the cognitive deficiencies in user interfaces with John. We were in the middle of this when the pilot announced we were landing in Trivandrum.

It was dark as we stepped out onto the runway and was ushered into a queue for passport/inoculation inspections (did I mention I had to get 6 shots for this trip?).

Tired from 20+ hours of traveling, I didn’t really understand what was happening but apparently I passed the inspection because they stamped my passport and handed me a slip of paper. By the time I got through John had already passed and was waiting for me on the other side of immigration.

I followed John as we passed by some armed guards and surrendered the slips we’d just been given. …That was a big mistake, but I was clueless.

A few steps down the next hall John stopped at the currency exchange I asked where I should pickup my bags. John looked at me with a curious expression and told me I was supposed to do that on the other side of the armed guards. Apparently that’s what my slip was for. …Ops!

Now I needed to find a way to convince the guards with machine guns to let me back into the receiving area, and then back out with my bags. I didn’t think this would be easy, but I assumed the airport manager and/or guards would at least speak English. They didn’t, but I managed to convince them to let me break the rules anyways.

Exiting the airport, this time with my bags, I entered a large crowd of busy people and tracked down John. I found him waiting with our car and a few moments later we were off for the hotel.

It’s difficult to describe the apparent chaos of driving in India; I flinched the first few times we veered into the wrong lane facing oncoming traffic with headlights flashing and horns blaring, eventually I got used to it.

We arrived at the hotel late and tired. I had been told this was a posh traditional Indian hotel, the best of its kind in the area, but I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised.

After checking in I headed up to my room for some R&R. I stayed awake just long enough to unpack, snap a few photos of the accommodations and enjoy some fruit that had been left for me.

I awoke the next morning around 8am (without an alarm clock) feeling very rested. Apparently staying up all night the day had worked as planned, I was already somewhat adjusted to the time zone. After brushing my teeth in bottled water I threw on some clothes and headed upstairs to the roof for breakfast.

I made a quick stop on the way and snapped this photo of the hotel and our doorman. I’ve been told the flowers adorning the entrance were brought down from the nearby mountains early in the morning.

My breakfast was an authentic traditional Kerala buffet. I piled on some Puttu-Kadala, Appam and Idli Sambar then headed to my table.

Spicy food wasn’t exactly what I was craving, but the view was wonderful. In the distance I could see the occasional building or cell tower rising through the thick canopy of palm trees (coconut, banana, etc).

During breakfast I met up with John and after our meal we set out to see the city.

Our first stop was East Fort, an old fort that surrounds the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple pictured below…

We were permitted to approach the temple but, since neither of us are Hindi, we weren’t permitted inside. Needless to say that was a little disappointing.

Since I couldn’t see the interior in person I went on Wikipedia for the second-hand view. Apparently the sanctum sanctorum (holy of holies) inside contains a statue of Vishnu reclining over the Adi Sesha, who is revered as the king of primal beings in the Hindi religion.

The statue of Vishnu is made up of 10,008 Saligrams. Saligrams are stones containing fossilized ammonites. They’re only found in the Gandaki river of Nepal. Those 10,008 fossils were not only imported from Nepal, they were brought to the temple by elephant in a lavish caravan a long, long time ago.

Adi Sesha is usually represented as a serpent with many heads, sometimes wearing ornate crowns (though he, like so many Hindi gods, can take many forms). In this temple Shesha’s nose is pointed at a blue lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). Interestingly the word for the blue lotus in Hindi is Kamal (written कमल), which is also a very popular word for man.

The pose of Shesh and Vishnu seems very similar to that of seven headed serpent in the Bible (see Revelation 12), I would have loved to see it with my own eyes. They probably would have let me if they knew I was a scholar; pity the people at the door don’t speak English well enough for me to convey that.

Exiting East Fort we passed through Mahadma Gandi park and entered the Chalai Bazzar. The street was littered with shops and carts selling gold, flowers, veggies, fruit, clothing, etc. We strolled the market for a while then wondered off the street into a quiet alleyway.

The narrow alley twisted and turned between buildings. I heard the sounds of children as we crept passed a local school. The school was a meager rectangle of tall concrete walls that housed a roof, elevated about 30ft off the ground with steel pipes. Under these conditions Kerala has attained a 91% literacy rate. Maybe American schools should fly out here and take notes instead of whining about funding.

Eventually our alley poured out onto a street big enough for motorized traffic. Wondering down this road I saw a variety of homes and businesses, some more run-down than others.

The almost every wall here is covered in Malayalam or plastered with posters for Bollywood movies, advertisements for Kingfisher Premium (the local beer of choice), even promotions for the local Marxist communist party.

Indian’s perspective on communism has a lot to do with their history. Hitler is considered to have been one of India’s biggest allies because of Nazi support during their struggle for independence from the British. Some Indians, and Indian history books, still have great things to say about Hitler, others even glorify him. It’s amazing that everyone doesn’t see that relationship for what it was. The enemy of my enemy is my friend by consequence only; Hitler wasn’t a real friend.

…Hopping off my soap box and getting back to my hike, a little further down the road we passed a bridge overlooking a busy train station. In the distance I could see hundreds of people packed into train cars with no windows.

Right as I was thinking, “Wow, that looks dirty” John says, “I’d really like to ride a train while I’m here”. I decided it’d be a good idea to get a picture of John while he was still happy and healthy, so I quickly snapped the picture below and we resumed our walk.

Over the next few hours I enjoyed the thrills of unfamiliar scenes; some beautiful, others tragic, many were a little of both. I hadn’t expected India to be this beautiful, or this dirty.

Passing over a bridge in a dingy part of town revealed a spectacular topical view of some “backwater” (rivers that are impacted by the tide of the ocean). As is so often the case, the picture doesn’t do the view justice…

The picture below reminded me of something I recently learned studying the mathematics of music. Believe it or not, an imperfect blend of notes creates a much more pleasant sound than perfectly equal notes. I think there is something objectively beautiful about imperfection.

An interesting demographic on Kerala (the area I’m visiting) is that 1/3rd of them are Muslim, another 1/3rd of them are Christian and the remaining 1/3rd are Hindi. Considering the peaceful history of the area this seems like a good mix, but the Hindi’s defiantly have more visible representation. Almost every block has its own Hindi temple.

Many of the Hindi temples here are devoted to specific gods while others (like the one below) are universal temples. It was very common to see believers, like the man below, stopping during their busy day to offer a quick prayer or offering.

A few miles down the road we ran into a large dirt field filled with young people playing Cricket on a dirt ‘cricket patch’. I don’t understand the game, but I’d love to play a match before I leave.

So we walked, and walked and walked. My clothes were dripping with sweating from the humid air and hot sun had already turned my white skin red by the time John suggested taking a taxi.

We hired a rickshaw (a three wheeled go-cart like taxi) for about $5 for a ride to nearby Kovalam beach for some cold drinks.

The rickshaw dropped us off at the top of a hill overlooking the beach, we hoofed it the rest of the way.

Kovalam greeted us with a cool Indian Ocean breeze and a herd of white people. For a minute I forgot where I was, but the annoying street venders brought me back to reality. Regardless of what you say, if they think you’re interested they won’t leave you alone.

After roaming the boardwalk we stopped by the Coconut Bay Restaurant. I ordered a rum-n-coke and some dish I couldn’t pronounce, John had the Kerala seafood platter and a Kingfisher Premium. The restaurant must not have a liquor license because they poured John a coffee mug of beer and told him the bottle needed to stay under the table. …Obviously my drink didn’t need any masking.

After our meal we left the beach and headed back to the hotel on another rickshaw. A few hours after returning to the hotel an employee of the company we’re working with met up with us in the lobby. Our host took us out for a nice dinner at a posh restaurant a few kilometers from our hotel.

After our meal we headed back to the hotel. A few blocks down the road I noticed something odd on the window. It looked like a leaf, only it was moving.

Leaning in for a closer look I realized, to my horror and amazement, we had a gigantic spider on our window!

I relaxed a little when I realized it was on the outside of the car. At least I was safe for now.

For those who don’t know me; I’m very comfortable around most creatures, I even lived with a pet rattlesnake for many years, but I am not comfortable around of huge spiders.

Calmly I informed our driver that there was a huge freakin’ spider on the outside of our windshield (emphasizing outside in a reassuring tone).

The pause in her response telegraphed that we shared similar feelings for spiders. In what sounded like a controlled tone she said spiders were common and that there was nothing to worry about.

I wasn’t worried. At this point I knew the spider was outside and I was inside. I would start worrying when I had to get outside. The spider must have been reading my mind because as I was plotting my escape he crawled onto the roof where I couldn’t track him.

We arrived at our hotel before I could formulate a proper tactical strategy, so I went with plan C; I told John to get out first. J

Quickly John ducked out the door. Once he had cleared the vehicle I asked where the spider was. He said it was still lurching on the roof so I leapt out the door and made a b-line for the hotel entrance. Walking in an urgent stride, but not running.

I know this sounds unbelievable, but that spider ran around the car following me. I was starting to wonder if he was going to jump from the car when it vroomed away.

I didn’t have my camera with me so I didn’t get a picture, but I went online back in my hotel room and found this video on YouTube.

By the way, if you view this video on YouTube in full-screen you can read the text for it. Apparently this creepy-crawler was in the guy’s hotel room.

I went to bed after watching the video. I decided further research was defiantly unnecessary. 😉

Three Hours in Dubai

January 5, 2008

The first leg of my trip to India was a flight from NYC (JFK) to Dubai (DXB). This was scheduled with Emirates Airlines as 14 hours in the air, but a nice tail wind pushed us there in just under 11.

My luck didn’t stop there. I also sat next to the ONLY open seat on the plane. …And this was a big plane. The A345 (aka Airbus 340-500) seats 313 passengers + crew. …What were the odds the guy next to me would lose his passport in JFK? Oddly enough, that’s exactly what happened.

Knowing this flight would be a long one I forced myself not to sleep the night before, so I was ready for some serious slumber. I fell asleep before takeoff.

I remember waking up a few times during the flight, once long enough to watch a movie. The plane had an excellent selection of films, maybe a few hundred movies and shows? …The 7″ touch-screens also offered seat-to-seat communications, video games, cameras that give passengers a view from the nose and belly of the plane. …IMHO, Emirates Airlines sets a new standard for in-flight entertainment.

After 10 minutes of browsing videos I chose The Man from Snowy River. The movie is based on poem written by Banjo Paterson, an Australian bush poet from the 1800’s. …I love bush poets. You really should watch it if you haven’t, the soundtrack alone is worth your time. …But I digress. At the films conclusion I promptly fell asleep again. The next time I opened my eyes we were landing in Dubai. That’s what I call a great flight!

Exiting the airport in Dubai John (my co-worker and traveling companion) made short-work of tracking down a “tour guide”. He chartered a 3hr tour of the city for something like 150 dirham ($40). …We would have liked to spend more time, but we had to catch our next flight to Trivandrum, India.

Our tour guide was in plain clothing and his car was decal free. For a moment I wondered if he was “really a tour guide” and half expected him to drive us down some dark narrow alley. …Fortunately that’s not what happened.

The first place we stopped was Al-Fahidi Fort museum. The fort was allegedly built in 1787, it’s believed to be the oldest building in Dubai.

Before we went in I realized I was leaving my laptop/life with a complete stranger. Quickly I snapped a picture of his license plate and told myself that would have to suffice.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum. …But long enough to get the distinct impression that the king doesn’t really like museums. Most the exhibits looked like they were thrown together and it smelled bad. I was curious and wanted to learn about their history, but there wasn’t much of an explanation for many artifacts (like the boats pictured below)…

That’s John in the distance on the left. He seemed just as eager to get through this museum as I was.

Pulling away from the museum I caught a glimpse of two locals relaxing on a cart. It looked like a nice relaxing lunch break to me.

Something about this scene brought back good memories. Watching these guys chat reminded me of all the times my buddy Erik I used to meet-up for lunch. Every day we used to act out the same routine.

We’d meet at a nearby grocery store, usually within range of a Starbucks. I’d score a muffin and a Starbucks or Sobe Cranberry Grapefruit Elixir, Erik would grab a bagel and a Sobe Green tea or something exotic. Then we’d sit under the sun and I’d listen to Erik complained about the price of bagels while I sipped my $4 Starbucks and plotted world conquest. Great times, but I digress…

We were now in an older, somewhat rundown part of Dubai. These pictures really don’t do justice to the smell and dirt that tarnished the area. …Though, I’m sure you get used to it after a while.

I was a little surprised to see laundry hanging from windows (pictured below), but I know from experience that high humidity can cause clothing to go moldy. Besides, hanging clothes like this eliminates the need to iron. I figure the eye-sore is worth having clothes that don’t smell musky.

Drying clothes outside is actually a very eco-friendly thing to do, but you try this at home please remember, “Tops by the bottoms, bottoms by the tops” …You’ll understand what I mean if you don’t figure that out.

Back to my trip, my family has done quite a bit of house-boating over the years. These have been some of my favorite family vacations. Naturally I thought of them when I saw this posh houseboat along the riverside. Talk about posh…

As our car moved down the river towards the beach it was hard to tell if I was in Dubai or California. Even the haze seemed to fit the bill…

A few miles down the road we pulled into what looked like another museum. Turns out it was an art gallery, filled with mass-produced art and knock-off carpets. …I guess our tour guide was a villain; no wonder the ride was so cheap.

Take the bird below for example, that’s cast metal (poured not pounded). It made a shallow plinking sound when I flicked it with my finger.

I enjoyed the gallery a lot more than the museum, but I took off when the proprietors started pushing rugs.

Back in the car we headed down the coast towards a more modern and developed area of Dubai. Several miles of the trip looked a lot like Newport Beach’s balboa peninsula.

Eventually we ended up at some hotels that are apparently owned by the king of Dubai. Judging by the building’s he owns, king loves symmetry. The hotels on the Palm Island are a great example. …Not that symmetry is a bad thing, everybody has their own style.

My favorite part about this hotel was actually the courtyard, moat and surrounding vacation homes (presumably rentals)…

This stage area also looked like a fun place to watch a concert at night (minus the xmas tree), I really wish I’d have had time to do that.

Notice the building in the distance on the picture above on the left? As we drew near that skyscraper our tour guide caught site of a helicopter that was just about to land. It was a very hazy day, so you can barely make it out in the picture below in the upper left corner…

A little further down the beach we ran into those Palm Islands we’ve all seen online. I was especially excited about visiting this site.

In case you’re not in the know, Dubai has been building islands in shapes. Some look like the world, with islands in the shapes of countries. Others look like Palms, crescents, etc. You can read more about these on Wikipedia, they’re really quite amazing.

The model above should help you get an idea of where the shot below was taken. It’s still under construction, but they’re building fast. Checkout all those cranes!

Leaving the Palms we headed past the city of Burj, Dubai (picture below). As you can see, there were cranes were everywhere. Apparently Dubai has over 30,000 of them, just over 33% of the cranes in the world.

In the distance below on the left you can see the largest building in the world. That’s still under construction, it’s going to be a must-visit 7-star resort when completed. …I’m looking forward to it!

Next we visited the mall. …Aside from the indoor skiing facility, I wasn’t impressed. But the indoor skiing facility is something to behold. It’s an amazing achievement and very cool attraction (though it can’t hold a candle to my local Mount Hood). Below are some stock photos mixed with those of my own, unfortunately we didn’t have time to try out the slopes.

About this time our guide informed us that we only had 45 minutes left before boarding. That was a problem because we weren’t ready to leave. John and I wanted to try some of the local food. I wasn’t sure if we had the time, but John assured me we did and the tour guide agreed so I went along with it.

Briskly walking from the mall we climbed into our car and raced off. The tour guide wanted to take us to an authentic restaurant that was near the airport. Everything was going perfectly according to schedule, until we placed our order. …20 minutes passed before we were finally given our food.

Now we had 25 minutes before boarding. We raced to the airport but by the time we got there our plane was already boarding. Even knowing this John wanted to stop and eat. I insisted we find our flight first, a few moments later they announced our final boarding call on the overhead. Reluctantly John agreed and we raced off.

Somehow we made it through all three security checkpoints WITH OUR FOOD and still made the flight, but it wasn’t easy. We had to run through the entire airport and, go figure, our plane was at the very end of one of the furthest concourses. Fortunately there were several other tardy passengers so we didn’t miss the flight. …I guess John was right, why did I ever doubt him?

India Bound

January 3, 2008

I woke up on the wrong side of the country again this morning, Stamford Connecticut to be exact. I flew out here a few days ago to prepare for a business trip to India, this morning I was headed into The City (New York) to pickup my Visa. It’s an understatement to say that I regretted leaving my winter coat as I strolled out the front door of my hotel and was embraced by the consequences of my indiscretion.

Outside I was greeted by a cold gust of wind that chilled me to the bone. …Somehow I’d forgotten how cold the east coast was in January at 6am. My Hurley hoodie wasn’t made for this weather but it would need to suffice.

Putting the thought of the cold out of my mind I flagged down a taxi and whispered something about going to the train station between my jittering teeth.

You’d think people on the east coast would demand train platforms that protected them from the elements. Apparently they’re too cheap to install those wonderful outdoor umbrella heaters.

To make matters worse, it was just my luck that all the trains to Grand Central were running late. Fortunately I’d remembered to bring a pair of full-sized/real headphones. Slapping those on over my hoodie doubled my warmth and the Metallica pounding between my ears helped distracted me while I wanted for the tardy train (emphasis on the tard in tardy, pun intended…with malice).

Arriving at Grand Central I found a warm taxi on the curb and pointed him in the direction of the Indian embassy. Have I ever mention how much I enjoy NYC taxis? I’d love to see a Nascar driver race a NYC cabbie. …But I digress.

A few miles later I was at the embassy. Exiting the cab I took a deep breath of the freezing air and reassured myself that this ordeal was almost over. …If only this had been true.

Posted on the door of the Indian embassy was a notice. Composed using a sloppy default Word 5.0 format, the notice informed me that India has outsourced their Visa processing service to an Indian firm on the other side of the city. …Fighting back the disappointment that almost consumed me I laughed at the irony and frantically started looking for a taxi.

By this time I was starting to get worried. It isn’t recommended that you wait until the day before your transatlantic voyage to apply for a visa. I knew I needed to be there before they opened if I wanted a decent chance of getting one. …Somehow I’d presumed this was already taken care of, my bad for not following up on it. This was something I could have easily done sooner. Owning my situation I resolved to make the best of things, took another chilling deep breath and pushed on.

Eventually my eye caught a cab and I bolted for it with one arm in the air. The cab was empty, but would you believe this taxi didn’t know where 316 East 53rd ST was? Fortunately I had my “smartphone” with me. I pulled up directions using Micro$oft Live Search and passed the pda to the driver. Minutes later I was at the outsourced Visa processing center.

But of course there was one final thing I needed to do before applying; get a passport photo. …Yep, the outsourced Visa processing center is too cheap to buy a digital camera and/or support it. Fortunately the Walgreens around the corner had one, $6 and 5mins later I had my photos.

I have to admit, I was impressed with the service at the outsourced Visa processing center. I was greeted warmly, treated respectfully and promptly. There was a long line, but it moved fast. A few forms and questions later I was relieved of my passport and told to return for it (and my Visa) between 5:30 and 6pm.

Back on the street I walked with a confident step and earned feeling of accomplishment. I procrastinated again, things almost blew up in my face, but somehow it all worked out in the end.

Adding to my fortune I ran into a Starbucks a few blocks down the road. I ordered an extra-large green tea with honey, grabbed a table and whipped out my laptop to write this post.

Well, I should get back to my regularly scheduled life now. I think it’s going to be a great day. I have plans to meet a friend in the city, we’re going to stroll through grand central and catch some authentic NY pizza.


PS: I wrote this on my laptop and uploaded it using my cellular broadband connection. This is the first time I have ever had 100% reception, my bandwidth is rated at 41Mbps. …Not bad!

The mainstream media has been running tons of bits on “number-crunching” Chimpanzees today. Here’s one headline from WiredScience, “Chimpanzees are probably better than you at math.” Having previously studied primates’ mathematical abilities, I was shocked. It’s widely known that primates can’t do math because they don’t think the way we do. Eagerly I read the article only to learn that math wasn’t involved in this exercise. That pissed me off (I hate deceitful headlines), so I decided to blog about it.

Here’s the real skinny on this bit of misinformation. The chimps were TRAINED to use a touch-screen and memorization program. The program displays numbers in random positions, then the numbers disappear and the chimp touches the places the numbers appeared in numerical order (1, 2, 3, etc).

We know the chimps see numbers as symbols and understand that one symbol preceeds the next. But that’s the extend of their “genius”. There was no addition, subtraction, multiplication or division involved in this exersize. If chimps could add two numbers and understand what they were doing then that would be a true number crunching math chimp, but these aren’t. Again, the headline was, “Chimpanzees are probably better than you at math” …A complete lie.

Some chimps, which had practiced for quite some time, were pitted against college students who had no prior experience with this exercise. The students kept up with the chimps until the numbers were only appearing for less than half a second. I’m not impressed at all that chimps can be trained to react/memorize faster than humans who weren’t trained.

Instead of pitting college students against the chimps, why not use children and spend an equal amount of time training them? I’d put money on a 6-year old winning. …Children are faster learners than adults and have excellent memorization skills.

Obviously this story is another example of the media selling scientific lies by the click. Below is a clip from an average player in a Halo 3 match. Your reaction time here has to be in the 50-millisecond range to be competitive, and it’s ridiculously more complicated then the chimp game above. This is the kind of game humans (children and adults) play FOR FUN. Let’s see a chimp do this…