Monthly Archives: March 2015

Magical Mystery Tour: PART VI

Jaipur

Friday, February 27 – Monday, March 2

We left the next morning to catch the train to Jaipur. Chhotaram escorted us to our seats where we found a cleaner ride than the one we all took to Agra. The trip was an easy six-hour ride. Bedding was provided, and I napped thanks to the wheels’  rhythmic clacking on the track. I also practiced my tactic of immediately using the toilet removing the future dread of having to use the head.

Jaipur is called the pink city, a color associated with hospitality. It began back in 1876 when the maharaja ordered all the buildings to be painted pink in order to welcome Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. To this day the law requires all residents to maintain that color. It does help that red sandstone was commonly used for construction.

This city, located due east of Jodhpur, is the capital of the state Rajasthan. Named after the boy king Jai Singh  II (1688-1744) Jaipur is known as Northern India’s first planned city. The king began building this new city in 1727 due to a growing population at the old capital Amber and the need for water. Jaipur soon became a magnet for those seeking knowledge about the world via science, art and religion. The king even constructed an observatory close to the City Palace, which one can still visit today.

Our hotel here was a mock-heritage hotel meaning it was built in the style of a former maharaja residence but wasn’t one; however, it certainly didn’t detract from the archtectural style, which reminded me a bit of a Dr. Seuss house with terraces and stairways criss-crossing every which way.

The entrance boasted its altar to a deity with bowls of floating petals.

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Our rooms was large and comfortable (with the exception of directly being under the breakfast dining room where a herd of elephants must have been dancing). The only disappointment was the staff, who were surly and not too happy to be waiting on visitors, both foreign and nationals alike. Thankfully the general manager at the front desk didn’t fall into that category for he was friendly and helpful.

That night we ventured out to the main street and dodged tuk-tuks, cars, and trucks to reach the opposite side. We found some refreshments for the room down one of the side roads only to then take a tuk-tuk to literally just cross the busy street (by now it was dark and there was no way I was going to risk stepping into the unorthodox streams of traffic).

Outside our room there were balconies, a private one where I hung laundry (and one day opened up to find a monkey staring back at me) and a public one where I noticed some construction going up in the distance.

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Curious about safety measures I zoomed in only to find these guys hammering away on the edges with no preventive lines while a women loaded bricks on her head and another one tended to two small children. A brief glimpse into some people’s lives made me feel overloaded with luck. That saying ‘there but the grace of god go I’ never seemed more appropriate.

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Our first full day Max woke up with Delhi Belly. We think it was the mutton we had shared the night before but it easily could have been some bug he picked up earlier. Whatever the cause, he needed to remain in bed whereas I decided to brave the streets alone to check out some handicrafts.

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All was fine. I took tuk-tuks to certain areas then walked to others. The only harassment was by three small street children who, if I hadn’t had a tight watch on, would have grabbed that off my arm and run. I felt awful telling them strongly ‘No!’ when they began hanging off me. This experience was one of the saddest and worst of my entire Indian trip mainly because I felt like such a rich tourista who didn’t know how to give these kids what they really needed, which was definitely more than a watch.

Max rallied the next day so off we went with a hired driver/guide to see some of the area’s famous sites such as Amber Fort located roughly six miles on a hillside outside Jaipur. On the way we stopped at Palace of the Winds or Hawa Mahal. This five-story building was built in 1799 by the maharaja for ladies of the royal household to people watch without being seen. We didn’t go in but snapped the obligatory shot while craning our necks upward.

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Back in the car we headed for the main attraction, Amber Fort. Built in the late 1500s by Raja Man Singh I and expanded by subsequent maharajas until the move to the new capital, Jaipur, this fort was the palatial home for the royal family.

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It was pouring when we arrived but armed with a purchased umbrella and rented audioguides we proceeded to explore the four sections each with its associated courtyard. Later the rain stopped and we were able to wander around without getting soaked.

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A close-up of the above stairway entrance shows some of the marvelous detail found in this palatial fort.

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And, the view overlooking the Maota Lake was also stunning in spite of the overcast sky. Note the gardens atop the structure on the right.

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The complex was impressive, especially the Hall of Victory with its inlaid panels and glass-covered paint and colored foil that sparkle even today. Imagine what this must have looked like when new and in candlelight. The pink hues, the delicate designs… I kept aiming and shooting and couldn’t stop.

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In  the courtyard of the Maharaja’s apartments a channel of water would cool off rooms while flowing eventually into the gardens for irrigation.

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We wound our way up and down stairways, some with impressive risers and found ourselves in the back hallway of the zenana or women’s quarters.

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In one of these courtyards we also found some translated plaques commemorating the fort.

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On the backside of this compound we peered into the hillside and immediately felt an airiness not experienced in other sites. We finally realized this was due to the lack of people. Only some monkeys occupied the view.

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Peering down into one of the courtyards facing the hill there was a colorful array of women in saris while a little bird kept watch.

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We left the way we came in after admiring more monkeys keeping guard at the Moon Gate.

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On our way back to Jaipur we stopped at a former duck-hunting, water palace, Jai Mahal. Constructed in 1799 by Madho Singh as a royal summer resort, this waterlogged structure sits in Man Sagar Lake created by damming the Darbhawati River in the 16th century.

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 Heading back into town we passed tarp homes along the busy city roads. Another reminder of the world’s have-nots living amidst the haves.

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The rain that had stopped sprung up again, so we pulled out the umbrella and puddle-jumped our way to the entrance of the City Palace. Everyone said it was unusual for this time of year, that it was too early. It made for some interesting walkways.

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At the City Palace we visited the impressive reception hall. Surrounding the large audience area there are large portraits of former maharajas including the polo-playing Man Singh II who was the last maharaja prior to the state becoming part of India. From there we wandered into the armoury and a museum sporting royal costumes from earlier years.

It was also in the complex that we saw the huge silver urns made for the devout ruler Madho Singh II so he could bathe in the holy Ganges water when attending King Edward VII’s 1902 coronation. There were two, and each one was over five feet high.

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And, it’s also where my husband, who doesn’t believe in psychics, deigned to have his fortune told only to have the guy say almost the exact same words to me.

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We ended our day back at our hotel and got ready to leave early the next morning. We were returning to volunteer at Mitraniketan, the NGO we’d visited with Noel and Diana earlier in our trip.

The next day it was my turn for not feeling well but luckily it didn’t include keeping vigil at a toilet. It did help when our stopover of five hours was in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. The airport was new, modern, clean, and comfortable with lounge sofas where I slept for a lot of the layover. And, after three hours I had recovered enough to check out the shops… :)

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Next stop, Mitraniketan!

Magical Mystery Tour: PART V

RAJASTHAN:  Salawas

Tuesday, February 24 – Friday, February 27

We got in the cab for Delhi airport having no idea what to expect when we exited the other end in Jodhpur, a city located in the western part of the Rajasthan state. When Noel asked what we wanted to do after the group tour, we didn’t know what to say except we’d like to get to know the people. He mentioned a homestay the first week and a place to volunteer the second. We signed on for both.

Now, the day had come for heading to the homestay in some village where your room was a mud hut (thankfully, with western toilets) and where optional forays included camel hikes. Hmmm. Maybe I agreed too quickly?

At the airport we parked ourselves next to the gate and proceeded to read up on whatever we could on Chhotaram Prajapat’s Homestay. While waiting we heard someone call our names only to look up and see Noel! He was here for his flight. We were so excited to see him you would have thought it had been years since we last were with him.

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Our flight was easy, and we landed in Jodhpur’s airport, which was modest compared to the large, international ones we’ve flown through and to. We picked up our bags and toted them outside only to be greeted by a sign ‘Max & Lynnie’. It was Chhotaram, our host, who loaded us into his jeep and off we went for a bouncy, dusty ride to his village and home.

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There we were introduced to some of his family, including his wife Mamata, brother Shambhu, Shambhu’s wife Dariya, and the children:  Chhotaram and Mamata’s daughter and two sons; Shambhu and Dariya’s baby boy. Others in and out were the two youngest brothers of Chhotaram and some other young cousins. The patriarch and matriarch of the family weren’t due home until late the next day after attending a funeral in another village.

That first afternoon we settled into our room while trying to figure out what to do next. There was really no routine or expectations of us other than to experience their lifestyle. The feeling was a bit uncomfortable for we didn’t want to intrude, yet their living space was literally an outdoor patio and courtyard with a small kitchen with an open fire pit, a washing-up place next to the kitchen for dishes, a covered veranda off of which were two rooms, one where they kept their inventory of dhurry rugs, and the other serving as an office, sleeping area, nursery and closet.

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On the opposite side of the courtyard stood another open-air room where the dhurries were woven.

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There was another building across the way where most of the family retired for sleeping.

Access to our mud hut was either via the driveway or through the office and past the buffalo and cow pens, jeeps, and laundry line.

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On the backside of our hut was the fire wood and where Mamata made cow dung patties for burning (I saw her doing it but ungraciously didn’t offer to help).

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Coming back to the patio, Chhotaram offered us lunch, which was a simple meal of healthy chips and buffalo curd. We soon learned almost every meal involved buffalo curd, either plain or curried. In addition to freshly made and baked millet bread or wholewheat chapatis, we had a cooked veggie, potatoes or rice, and an optional chili sauce that was excellent (they kindly left it as an add-on in deference to foreigners’ concern over too-spicy of a dish). The first day required a bit of getting use to, but by the time we left three days later we were truly enjoying this fresh food. It was the healthiest, purest nutrition I think I’ve ever eaten. Just writing this makes me wish I was sharing one of those meals.

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We also quickly learned Chhotaram is an extremely healthy eater. He only drank water or milk, never ate meat, never ate processed food (the mother and wives cooked using all fresh ingredients), and only used water to brush his teeth. Going by the look of him and his teeth, his diet was something we all should be doing.

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Chhotaram and his family are weavers, and he runs a 40-family cooperative ensuring that those making these lovely rugs are reimbursed fairly for their work. He demonstrated the art of dhurry weaving, which is long and involved and something I couldn’t do, especially since I couldn’t sit like that for longer than 15 minutes.

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Chhotaram is also an excellent salesman as we ended up buying several of these rugs, and we live on a boat… However, we know we’ll find a place in our Orr’s home for them.

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Early evening the third youngest brother took us for a walk around the neighborhood. Chhotaram asked us to converse with his brother in English (not that we could have spoken in his language) as he wanted his brother to practice. This discipline of learning English obviously paid off as most of the adults spoke it.

Along the way we saw a woman herding her goats home, a runaway camel, peacocks (where I couldn’t help but think of my artist friend Ellen and Max’s Aunt Phyll), the water truck (we saw it deliver a tank load to Chhotaram’s cistern), and lots of boisterous kids beckoning us for photos.

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What’s lovely to see is the natural affection among guys as opposed to only among girls.

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Back at the homestead I saw Mamata creating her delicious meals. Look at her spice rack in the second photo. She used it to make an excellent, fiery chili sauce.

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I tried my hand at tforming a flat, circular millet patty but failed miserably. Mamata just smiled, took the sad, misshapen lump and expertly turned it into a perfect circle.

Night fell quickly and soon we were off to bed. The next morning would be our village safari, which is comprised of visiting different families and businesses living in and around Salawas.

We left around 9:00 in Chhotaram’s trusty jeep and made our way to a home owned by a Bishnoi family. The Bishnois (translates to ’29’) follow the 29 principles teachings of Lord Jhambheshwar, a Hindu who believed in a casteless society, not killing or eating any animal, no cutting down trees (he reached his enlightenment after sitting under one in the 15th century), and no drinking of alcohol.

In addition to the belief in conservation the Bishnois also believe in welcoming strangers with an offer of opium. How this got started I don’t know, but Max enjoyed a simulated puff.

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From there we stopped at a small lake where we saw some of the local animals and a huge flock of migrating geese followed by a visit to a shepherdess’ home.

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Another cooperative, this one composed of men and women who created lovely scarves and used old saris to quilt wall hangings and bed spreads.

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We have learned that you can’t enter a store without having everything pulled out for display. And, yes, it works. We ended up getting some.

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One of our final stops was at the local potters. To turn his wheel the potter used a stick to quickly build up centrifugal force, then began shaping his pot. I tried but was definitely not successful. This attempt only made me realize even more how talented our friend Rebecca Esty is.

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What is amazing to me is these people’s livelihoods are passed down from one generation to the next. The shepherdess, the potter, the weavers, all worked in the same field as their parents, and their parents’ parents, in many instances going back hundreds of years. Chhotaram continues to weave like his father, and, no doubt, his children will, too. This pre-destined occupational path felt odd to someone who grew up with little expectation of following in my parent’s footsteps. Here, it worked.

We landed back at Chhotaram’s and retired to our hut. Soon we heard our host saying he had a surprise for us and to join him at the house. Up we went only to turn the corner and find Layne there! Talk about a wonderful shock! She and a friend of hers living in India were staying just outside of Jodphur and had also gone on a village safari. What was ironic is we passed them in our jeep, and Max mentioned ‘I just saw someone who looked a lot like Layne.’  She did the same only she asked the driver, who happened to be Chhotaram’s brother, if some people named Max and Lynnie were staying at his house. As a friend Steve Keener says, the world is a small, small ball.

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Later that day five new guests arrived, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses travelling around India. They were all young, all friendly, and not preachy, which was a good thing. Our last event of the day was walking fifteen minutes to perch atop an outcropping of boulders as the sun set.

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Our second full day was spent relaxing and catching up on emails and news, then strolling with Chhotaram around his own village. It also gave me plenty of opportunity to take some photos of his beautiful family.

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Talk about a family who could model joy. I couldn’t stop snapping photos.

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My hat provided some photo ops, and it looked much better on Chhotaram and his younger brother than it did on me.

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A french family (grandparents with their granddaughter) arrived in time for dinner, and Max took the opportunity to demonstrate, then teach, his one card trick. We enjoyed the brief time we were with them and would have liked to have visited more, as well as heard how they were adjusting to Indian fare compared to France’s. I did give the little girl some power bars as I had noticed she wasn’t eating much.

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Our home stay was definitely an eye-opener. Chhotaram is an impressive entrepreneur, one who is dedicated to preserving the heritage of local livelihoods while adapting to modern ways.

Although some customs (e.g., women have to cover their faces to show respect to their mother-in-law, and arranged marriages – Chhotaram was married at age 19, his wife, age15) were so startling different from a westerner’s viewpoint, the underlying sense of family was strong.

And, no matter the differences smiles and laughter bridge all cultures.

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Magical Mystery Tour: PART IV

DELHI

Saturday, February 21, – Tuesday, February 24

Back in a big city we adjusted to the pollution and noise, especially as we got to take tuk-tuks for the day. By now we had all become a bit de-sensitized to the lack of traffic rules, so buzzing around in our tuk-tuks was a BLAST. Especially since Layne had begun the game of thigh-grabbing fellow tuk-tukers (not the drivers, just the other passengers). She totally surprised Max, which meant she is the high priestess of thigh-grab.

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The reason for this began when Max related how a male Berber in Morocco placed his hand on Max’s thigh when I took a photograph. Max, being a bit uncomfortable, was okay but just not used to another man being quite so intimate. Western cultures are so not-thigh-grabbing. Anyhow, whenever he took a picture, instead of saying ‘cheese’, he’d grab the inside of his thigh. Which all leads up to our tuk-tuk game.

You played by stealthily approaching a fellow tuk-tuk from one side or the other, then quickly darting your hand out to grab a piece of flesh… thigh, arm, hand… it didn’t matter where just so long as contact was made.

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The three drivers (we had split up into groups of two, two, and three) must have thought we were nuts; yet, you could tell they were getting into the game because it was due to their careful  maneuvering that enabled us to swipe at our fellow tuk-tukers.

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I must admit I let out a loud yelp when I got grabbed. Did I say it was a blast?!

So, we made our way to our first Delhi site, the Bahai House of Worship or Lotus Temple. This religion is relatively new and, thus, has the advantage of understanding the value of accepting any and all beliefs. It’s the epitome of tolerance, believing in the oneness of God and the spiritual unity of all mankind. This was immediately apparent just waiting in line to enter for Noel pointed out that it was one of the few sites where both locals and foreigners shared the same queue.

At the entrance we saw an unusual site, which was free vaccinations offered by, of all organizations, the Rotary with visiting members from Europe.

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After speaking briefly with them, we entered the grounds and were swept up in a calmly moving sea of Indians enjoying a Sunday outing.

The grounds were a green oasis, which we saw was due to an environmental approach to gardening.

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This temple is one of seven houses of worship located around the world, each with its own distinctive design. This one is inspired by the lotus, a symbol of purity associated with worship and religion in India. Nine large pools of water surrounding the enclosure not only enhance the tranquility of the site but also cools the building.

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The air of spiritualism with which all visitors appeared to cloak themselves was disturbed by an incident involving one of our group. Some guys used the opportunity to briefly isolate Leslie from our cluster as we were snaking our way to the temple doors. Fortunately a man saw her being cut off and quickly herded her back to our group but not before the young guys had snitched her scarf. A few minutes later and she could have lost her wallet. In spite of being a bit shaken by the experience Leslie put it all in perspective. This episode also made me realize how protective my fellow travelers were towards each other as we formed a circle around her and kept our eyes out for other dipping hands.

We had the usual photo-sharing, but I missed one I really wanted to take, which was of a group of young students from the north. They gathered around us like chicks in their bright yellow tees, but, unfortunately, we used one of their cameras to take it. No matter how often we were stopped to ask to be in photos, we never tired of it. It felt like an honor. I mean there aren’t too many places in the world these days that people from the States feels so welcomed.

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The rest of our Sunday in Delhi was spent tuk-tuking around this huge city including stopping in at a huge, western mall to see part of a Bollywood film (alas, not much singing and dancing but still fun to try to grasp the meaning as it was all in Hindi) and sample some fare at the new food court. We easily could have been back in the states, although not sure we’d have found yoga food like this.

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Back in the tuk-tuks we explored one of Noel’s favorite monuments in all of New Delhi, the Qutb Minar. This site represents the first Islamic rule in India with a 238-foot tower.

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The first three stories are out of sandstone while the 4th and 5th include marble as well as sandstone. The first story of the tower was begun by the Muslim sultan Qutb-ud-din in 1193 to celebrate his victory over the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. Later his successors added to it, resulting in the current, five-storey structure.

This complex reminded me of the Roman Forum because it obviously was the heart of Delhi during the Middle Ages. The tower is just one of many structures located here. There is India’s first mosque, The Might of Islam Mosque, built the same year as the tower. And, an iron pillar, which had been standing here possibly as early as the late 4th century C.E. with a sanskrit inscription (scientists are still mystified by how this iron pillar could have been cast using ancient technology)…

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Tombs and summer palaces also grace this complex.

There was a ton of history here, a lot of which zoomed right through my head, but the patterns carved into many of the stones’ surfaces are what fascinated me. And, trust me, there were a lot of them.

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I loved this guy who just happened to be resting his arm on some ancient sculpture,

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and, who can resist kids and animals? :)

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From there we ventured to the India Gate, a 160-foot arch commemorating those Indian soldiers who died during WWI, the Northwest Frontier operations, and the 1919 Anglo-Afghan war.

Being a balmy Sunday evening, the grounds surrounding the Gate attracted locals like moths to a light, and we entered into this throng as twilight turned to night. Amazing that this was just a regular night out for folk. And, once again, we were part of the attraction.

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Just as Qutb Minar brought to mind the Roman Forum, here I felt I could have been at the Mall in Washington D.C. If you left India Gate and rode down the broad avenue of Rajpath (Kings Way) you’d reach an array of large government buildings, including the official residence of India’s president. The buildings were constructed between 1914 and 1931 when Britain moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, thus creating ‘New’ Delhi. It was dark by the time we arrived in our tuk-tuks, so we just briefly peered at the imposing buildings then left.

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Sunday Dinner was a celebration at Veda, one of Noel’s favorite restaurants, and just around the corner from our hotel. It was a spectacular event with one of my newly discovered, favorite foods–fried spinach with cheese sprinkled on top (Carolie, at least the fried item is a veggie and not an oreo like you saw once).

After feasting on those along with other appetizers I hardly had any room for the coming entrees. One of which was, what else, mutton. I must admit it was the one time I felt I had over-indulged. Of course the G&T contributed to the full feeling :)

Our last full day together we once again stepped out into the smog. I can’t say I got use to it, this almost viscous air. You felt you could almost chew it.

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For our jaunts around Delhi we now switched tuk-tuks for rickshaw bicycles. The difference here was you were much more on display, and, boy, as a woman you felt it. However, I had heard wearing sunglasses helps, and they did serve well as a shield :)

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The other concern was the poor peddlers. I felt I should have gotten out and pushed. Thank god there weren’t any hills we had to ascend. Then I really would have had to get out and push.

We got an up close view of the these streets as we wove our way through the humanity. Spices ready to be shipped, modern appliances for sale, food stalls sending out tantalizing aromas, you name it, you could get it here.

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We spotted a film crew and wanted to ask what they were shooting but we were carried away by this tide of humanity.

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The reason we were heading to Old Delhi was today was Temple Day, our first being the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid or “Friday Mosque”. The same dude who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal built this between 1644 and 1658. Reputedly it can hold 25,000 people. Put it another way, almost 1/8 of Maine’s population could gather here for a lobster bake.

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The patterns on the floor stipulate where to place one’s prayer rug, and we carefully stood aside in our bare feet as men came to pray.

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The mosque sits in a large courtyard overlooking Delhi. Clogged streets, outdoor markets,

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(zoomed view)

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impromptu playing field,

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home abodes…

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all of these you can see if as you check out each side. Here, we did see a lot of other foreigners. No surprise considering it’s one of the top attractions in Delhi.

We made our way through an outdoor market to find lunch, spotting a barber where Max was thinking of getting his hair cut but we didn’t have time.

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Lunch was at the Delhi-famous Karim’s. Serving food since 1913, this rabbit (or should I say goat) warren of a restaurant is known for its Mughlai cuisine, and, yes, mutton was part of our meal. We felt a little conspicuous when we pulled out our alcohol wipes for sterilizing silverware. Although, sitting next to the dishwashing, if you want to call it that, made me realize how futile this precaution was. This feeling of futility was compounded by seeing the glasses we’d be drinking out of. But, hey, the food was good! Must have been due to the accumulation of years of seasoning using the same items over and over and over.

Post lunch was our Sikh Temple time at Gurudwara Sis Ganji located at Chandni Chowk, a major avenue of Old Delhi. Here, too, we went shoeless while draping heads with scarves and, for the guys, cute bandanas.

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Once we had completed our appropriate attire we stumbled back out to the street, pushed with the crowd, to climb steps at the temple’s entrance.

While prepping a man kindly passed out leaflets in English, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Telugu (the latter I now knew was the language for Hyderabad’s state) explaining how Sikhism was founded over 540 years ago by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. He opposed superstitions, rituals and hypocrisy and was deeply revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Skins also earned a fearsome reputation for being courageous warriors, which they say was necessary to protect India and the women folk from all the invaders.

This particular temple commemorates Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji who sacrificed himself in protest of Aurangzeb’s (Shah Jahal’s son) forcible conversions of Hindus to Islam. It’s a fairly involved tale and pretty gruesome considering the tortures some of the other Gurus experienced, but, basically, he refused to convert and was executed on November 11, 1675. His martyrdom caused masses to rise up and, thus, eventually (key word there) led to the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1783.

Inside we tried not to gawk at the brilliance of decorations. Compared to the mosque’s subdued colorations this was Mardi Gras. In spite of the seemingly large number of worshipers in the drop-off-pick-up-shoes-bandana-head room down the street this was relatively empty.

We grabbed a spot at the way back, trying to bend our limbs into modest positions without facing our feet out. A guy was playing music up front as devotees came and went.

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After fifteen minutes we stumbled up on our numbed legs and followed Noel to the front of the temple where we queued up to see the tomb made of 100% gold. Like the Roman Catholic cathedrals, all I could think was how many people this could help if melted down. That, and what fabulous pairs of earrings you could get out of it.

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Back outside we reversed the process of shoe and headgear then followed Noel to the street where he pointed to a Hindu Temple we could visit. But, he said we’d have to take our shoes off and actually walk through some nasty stuff on the street to get there. That cinched it. We all politely declined and headed for shopping or the Red Fort (seen in the background below).

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Well, the Red Fort wasn’t open on Mondays so off we returned to the hotel, R&R for the men and retail therapy for the women.

Dinner was subdued as the first of the group made preparations for catching a 2:00 a.m. flight back to Maine. Morning would complete our leave-takings, with Layne heading to Jodphur to meet a friend, Diana to Mitraniketan to volunteer, Max and me to a homestay outside of Jodhpur, and Noel to Nepal and Bhutan to vet sites for his Fall travelers.

Thankfully we knew we’d be seeing one another in a few weeks back in Portland, which made good-byes not so sad. And, you know me, I positively detest good-byes.

For Max and me it was a bit daunting to think of navigating India on our own. However, we found Noel had prepared us well for exploring the mysteries of this exotic country.

As we waved good-bye we knew there could be bumps and a few bruises on our solo travels but nothing unmanageable and all an adventure.

With a deep breath we began our solo voyage into the inner sanctum of the Indian continent…

Magical Mystery Tour: PART III

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Thursday morning February 19 – Saturday night February 21

We flew to Delhi and stayed close to the train station for the night to then rise early and catch a train to Agra the next morning. This was our first train ride, and I had prepared by letting extremely little fluid cross my lips. Train restrooms are bad enough in the USA. I could only imagine the experience on an Indian train.

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We were in one of the better coaches, yet, even that made me realize just how spoiled I was traveling on the UK trains. In spite of wanting to wipe everything down with our 1/4”-square alcohol wipes it was quite fun. Noel invited each of us up to an open door so we could lean out and snap photos as we zoomed by a quilt of countryside:  irrigated fields gave way to garbage-decorated towns only to revert back to green acres of farmlands worked by small landowners… all cloaked in heavy smog, which was a forerunner to our air in Delhi.

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IMG_5110IMG_5251it was also along the ride we saw the traditional method of preserving cow dung for fuel as we passed patties arranged for drying.

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Of course, in spite of my few-drops-of-liquid policy I had to use the facilities, and a tactic was born. From now on I would attempt to be the first to use any public toilet. This practice had two advantages:  by facing one of my worst fears early on (just how bad would it be if desperately needing to use a toilet on a moving vehicle), I eliminated any hesitation for when I really needed to use the facilities; and, by attempting to be one of the first I wasn’t faced with as much grime and previous-usage by others. This tactic stood me in good stead as the trip advanced.

During the three-plus hour ride we entertained ourselves with breaking out in “Do, Re, Me” song and Daniel’s tribute to Limca, a new favorite drink.  Purchased from one of the train’s Meals On Wheels guys.

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Can you tell we were a group who weren’t afraid to be ourselves?

Arriving in Agra we took pics of those interested in being photographed

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as Noel pointed out the interesting signage that indicated who can use which lounge.

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Exiting the station a group of us posed for our own photo before heading to our hotel for our stay.

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We spent the late afternoon exploring a local bazaar.

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We were entertained by some young dancers until Noel said they most likely had been sexually abused. He also had mentioned earlier India still had eunuchs.

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As we were strolling along in the market I heard a familiar sound but couldn’t quite place it. Puzzled I turned toward the buzzing noise only to realize we were going to be fumigated again. We all quickly took it in stride  creating our own face masks.

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That night we attended two weddings, one by just being there and the other due to Noel’s Charm Offensive obtaining an invitation.

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This required us to dress in our Indian finest and then ham it up.

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It also provided me with one of my favorite photographs of my husband who was looking mighty fine in his Indian attire.

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The next morning we had another delicious meal at our hotel with some of the nicest wait staff. One guy had the best smile, Max posed with him so I could get a photo. Throughout our time in India we ran into smiles such as this.

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We walked down and stood in line to enter the Taj Mahal where security guards searched bags for any food. Resident monkeys kept close eyes on this, peering down as visitors’s pocketbooks were emptied of any contraband.

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While waiting with our group I noticed a monkey gleefully scampering away from colleagues on the iron scaffolding. Peering closely I saw it was grasping a colorful tube. When focusing the zoom on the creature I burst out laughing. He has absconded with Leslie’s smarties, which she had brought all the way from the US with plans to hand out to children. How the little fellow grabbed them I don’t know but her smarties were certainly a huge hit.

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The Taj Mahal has been coined the “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity” by one of India’s poets, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) , and it deserves that descriptor. This historical landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world, was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan. Remember my mentioning Abkar, a Mughal Emperor? Well, Jahan is his grandson. Like his grandfather, Jahan was known for his military prowess but his interest in architecture also earned him the title “Builder of Marvels”.

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Shah Jahan began construction of the Taj Mahal the year after his third wife and love of his life, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to their 14th son in 1631. Legend states she requested him to build her the most beautiful tomb the world; and, he did over the next eight years.

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The attention to detail was amazing. The architect had also created some mirages, such as creating a chevron pattern that made the vertical pillars appear hexagonal.

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Using materials from all over India (and over 1,000 elephants to carry it) 20,000 craftsmen constructed the Taj Mahal located on the banks of the Yamuna river. The colors are magnificent, surrounding the ethereal glow of the marble with pastels. Even the birds seem to follow this color scheme.

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Shah Jahal was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb in 1658 and died in 1666 as a prisoner in Agra Fort. Supposedly, his favorite daughter installed a mirror in his cell so he could gaze upon his beloved’s tomb. (Another link to our previous site visits:  Aurangzeb led a siege against the Golconda Fort in 1687 finally scaling the walls and forcing the surrender of Abul Hasan Qutb Shah and acquiring the hefty wealth of Hyderabad.)

Exiting to the other side we found a scene from early ages. The river stretched out in front of us lending an other-wordly air to an already awe-inspiring structure.

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Returning to the front I snapped a shot looking back at one of the gated entrances from which we entered. I thought of the photo of Princess Di being here without a crowd of people. It must have been both eerie and lovely.

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Of all the places we saw in India, this site is maintained the best with no trash strewn about, lovely flowers and grounds,

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and a structure whose sole purpose is to amaze and awe visitors. The grounds were able to absorb all of the busyness and sounds that come from passels of tourists (reputed to be more than twice the population of Agra), leaving a tranquility rarely encountered in our Indian adventure.

Once you sat down you and gazed upon one man’s memory of his beloved, it’s difficult to leave, a feeling we shared with many other visitors.

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This site really did lull one into a surreal peace.

Returning to our hotel in a cab, I couldn’t help but notice even the taxis pay homage to the Taj Mahal colors.

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While waiting for our transport, we experienced a typical communication situation. Noel decided to arrange a car ride versus taking the train, allowing us more travel flexibility. Noel had agreed to  hire a car that the manager said would be a new vehicle equipped with all the latest comforts. Well, after waiting for 30 minutes the ‘new’ one appeared. Evidently ‘new’ meant it had four wheels and some seats.  Another half hour passes and the driver reappears with the manager’s own car. It offered better comforts but, since it wasn’t licensed as a tourist vehicle, we ran the risk of being fined if caught on the highway. So, reject #2. Finally, the driver shows up with another mini-van. Even though it was similar to the first in terms of comfort, at least  it was legal. With that we stuffed ourselves in and merrily rode the highway back.

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I believe Noel has the knack of ensuring his peeps are all flexible for I found our group always made the most fun out of any experience. Our three-plus-hour ride back to Delhi was no exception. Delhi, here we come!

Magical Mystery Tour: PART II

KERALA

Monday, February 16th to Thursday, February 19th

The next morning we flew via Chenai down to Trivandrum in the southern state of Kerala. Thapovan, an Ayurvedic Clinic and Treatment Center, was our destination in this tropical region.

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I must admit I’ve tried yoga and its accompanying spiritual Ohm-ing. It hasn’t really captured me. I remember one class I attended many moons ago. When the guy said root yourself to the ground and be a tree, I couldn’t help wishing the ground was somewhere else and that the tree served doughnuts. So, no, I did not attend the morning yoga practices. However, if our friend Gail was teaching, I would!

It was both Max’s and my first glimpse of the Arabian Sea, so Max donned his Summer Salstice tee in honor of our friend John Arndt and strolled down to the beach.

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Noel had told us this state had a strong presence of communism, so we weren’t surprised to see the hammer and sickle signage on our way to this yogi-ish resort. We also learned this state had one of the highest literacy rates, thanks to the communist emphasis on education.

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What did surprise us was Noel giving us the okay to consume the fresh fruits and vegetables. But, it was because he trusted the preparation at this healthy spa. Up to now we weren’t allowed, which is no surprise because most travelers are forewarned not to eat fresh fruits or vegetables unless they’re thoroughly washed and then cooked.

Throughout our wanderings the abundance of the watermelon, pineapple, bananas, papapyas, and other tropical fruit left me drooling as we passed roadside stalls with the aroma of freshly squeezed juices. I’m convinced if there’s a fruit, an Indian will figure out how to make any and all food offerings out of it. Followed by crafting shoes, or some sort of useful item out of the remnants.

But here, permission was granted to indulge. And, each day I did just that. It was heaven. I don’t think I had a meal there without devouring one of the delicious fruit plates offered in this Sangria-la setting. But, you had to ensure your plate was close at hand for the crows would swoop into the open-air dining room to snatch any leftovers. Don’t blame them. If I lived in India I’d be poaching food here, too.

Because there are so, so very many sites to see and events to experience, we were only dipping our toes into India’s offerings. And, Kerala was no exception. Noel had to juggle schedules and logistics to ensure all of our senses were exposed to the real India. Which meant we couldn’t do everything we wanted, such as simply lay down on the verandas around here with a cup of good java and watch the palm fronds wave (the hammock pic reminds me of a painting Ellen, a good friend of ours, created… it’s hanging in the blue room on Orr’s Island :).

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In this peaceful setting roosters and chickens roamed the grounds. I loved seeing them cluck their way through the plants. Although, when the rooster starting crowing at all hours of early morning, I would have preferred to have seen him and his buddies on a plate.

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On Tuesday morning the group chose different activities. Since Max, Diana and I were volunteering at Mitraniketan, a rural community development NGO, after the scheduled group tour, we headed off with Noel. Our destination was approximately one hour away in a small village called Vellanad. There we’d meet one of its co-directors, Dr. Reghu, who ran the center’s People’s College. Leslie, Layne and Daniel would have a recuperating day with ayurvedic consultations, massages, and beach time. Believe me, it was tempting to join the latter group, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of a road trip.

Having visited the Mitraniketan’s website (www.mitraniketan.org) prior to our journey to India, I was suitably impressed not only by the center’s programs but also by the photos of the founder with the Dali Lama. Now that’s what I call a stamp of approval. We later discovered the Dali Lama asked to come back several years after his initial visit in the late 1990’s. I found that even more impressive.

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The campus was quiet due to a holiday (there are a lot of temple holidays in India, and, whether one believes or not, who doesn’t like a reprieve from a routine?), but the three of us met Reghu while being guided around the center by Sumam, a lovely young woman who was also pretty quiet. We were accompanied for part of the tour by a Danish couple who had met years ago when both were volunteering in India, one in the north, the other in the south. They were retracing each other’s time with the husband’s time at Mitraniketan being part one.

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After a shared lunch the four of us left for our return trip, spotting some of the local festivities along our route, such as the huge cauldron of boiling rice mixture stirred by one of the taxicab and rickshaw drivers outside their temple set-up. And, yep, another photo-op.

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Before we landed back at Thapovan we stopped at one of Mitraniketan’s properties located in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. Tanjavoor Amma Veddu was the home of Sugandha Valli, the Maharaja’s mistress. The story goes Swathi Thirunal, the Maharaja, fell in love with this Bharatanatyam dancer (try saying that fast) and began neglecting his responsibilities. Enough so his family ordered Sugandha Valli out of the city without her lover’s knowledge. He didn’t live long after that and no one knows what happened to the dancer. A sad story but a magnificent house and dance hall. The structures have fallen into disrepair, but, hopefully, some renovations will occur before too long for it’s a jewel.

We took a tour of both buildings, admiring the attention to detail. In spite of neglect the colors are still bright and remaining furniture is not too badly damaged.

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As we were touring we entered a small room on the second floor only to be startled by some beating wings flashing by. Noel began to say ‘don’t worry, it’s just a pigeon’ when he changed that to a screech ‘it’s an owl!’. And, it was a big one. Just as it scared the beejeesus out of us, we found we had done the same to it.

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Sugandha Valli was known for the famous Kerala dance, Kathakali (“Story-Play”), a theatrical combination of drama, dance, music and ritual; and, her dance hall was the perfect spot to act out some moves.

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Thanks to Noel’s strict dietary instructions (no fresh or raw fruit and vegetables, only bottled water, no ice, and disinfect utensils, bottles and cans with alcohol wipes) only a few had gotten some twinges of Delhi Belly. However, there were some odd manifestations occurring, one being Leslie, Diana, and Daniel’s swollen feet and ankles (quickly termed “Camelitis” versus “Elephantitis” due to the first two’s camel ride) and Layne’s and my poka dots.

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Fortunately, all gradually disappeared but not without each of us scrutinizing the offending appendage or skin area carefully on a daily basis.

Arising the next morning we gathered for a backwater cruise, an activity famous in Kerala thanks to the numerous canals flowing around this southern tip of India.

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For over an hour we glided past locals harvesting coconuts and bathing…

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 as well as the brightly hued kingfisher perched along the banks.

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We landed on a sand bar where Max tested the water for a swim,

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then adorned himself in Neptune’s head gear with Noel’s help.

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Fortunately, he didn’t run into one of these in his ocean dip.

IMG_4941Surrounded by running water and a fairly deserted sandbar also provided an opportunity to perfect our female rite of peeing in a circle.

Mid-afternoon found us back at Thapovan with Max, Diana and I scheduled for our traditional Ayurvedic massages. Our time in Baden-Baden had prepared me for this experience as well as Layne and Leslie’s descriptions of theirs.

The masseuse sits you on a stool, naked, and proceeds to anoint your scalp with oil prior to then asking you to lay down on the mat so she can use first her feet then her hands to jiggle the helll out of our muscles and flab.

One and a half hours later I exit dazed to stumble back to our room to take the first of many shampoo showers to get the oil out of my hair and some control over my numbed, cellulite body.

That night we walked around the village then took tuk-tuks to another beach resort, Kovalum. This area had become one of India’s popular honeymoon destinations, and Noel pointed out newly married woman who were wearing the traditional slinky armful of red bangles.

On the way we stopped at the local grocery store called the Divine Supermarket. We surmised it possibly got its name from the Russian Roulette one played when standing under a lump of limestone hanging by a not-so-substantial piece of fabric. Serving as a good luck omen, it seemed to me one could quickly enter the divine kingdom of death if stood below this slowly twirling object for any amount of time.

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The next morning Diana, Max and I were having our joint Ayurvedic consultation. We also had an opportunity to ask specific questions about our health, so I displayed my poka dots. That, along with some other questions, prompted the doctor to load me down with medicines. (I wish I could say I followed doctor’s orders, and I definitely believed in his diagnoses, but I can’t lie. After toting bottles of oil and batches of pills around, I slowly unloaded them in various hotel rooms. It was that or give up gift-purchasing space, and you can imagine what won out. It helped that one of the oils I discreetly left behind was castor oil.)

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The three of us also left with sheets of foods to-eat and not-to-eat. Unfortunately, as a 50-50 mix of deer and tiger (the other animal is elephant), I supposedly could have one food as deer but not as tiger and vice versa. And, yes, these diet sheets, too, went by the wayside.

If I was planning on staying there for a week or more, like a lot of the other guests (mainly European), I would probably attempt to follow the deer-tiger prescribed massages and diet. But, since I am a true creature of desired comfort, that wasn’t going to happen.

Plus, I had fallen in love with an Indian snack Noel had introduced to us in Hyderabad, and I had subsequently purchased a grocery bag full. I doubt it was on the “good to eat” list of either of my animals.

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We posed with one of the bags at the Trivandrum airport as we began our trek back north to one of the most magical places on earth:  the Taj Mahal.

Magical Mystery Tour: PART I

Are we REALLY here? Which is the question I asked myself early Friday morning on February 13 as my bare feet felt the cool marble floor of Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple in Hyderabad, India. Constructed in 1976 by a wealthy, industrial family (the Birlas), this white stone temple serves as a sanctuary for all people, whether Hindi or not, with its companion planetarium just down the hill. The Birlas have been constructing combination sites of the spiritual with the scientific over the past 50 years. Thanks to Noel Bonam of Portland’s Boda Travel, this site was our introduction into the complex and contradictory world of India and into the world of where bare feet rule.

Why India?

Max and I had quickly jotted down this country as one of our ‘must-see’ countries when we became engaged back in December 2000. Fast forward fourteen years later and we had signed onto Noel’s small-group travel thanks to the recommendation of Judy and Doug who had experienced a Boda India adventure with friends Roger and Stephanie Greenwood a few years ago. Because of a visa-on-arrival program becoming operational just in time for our joining the group of four others, Max and I found ourselves part of a magical mystery tour led by our host Noel.

Believe it or not my backpack suitcase had extremely few clothes but enough medicinal, cosmetic  and electronic supplies to make it and me feel like a combo bag lady and walking drugstore. I even took lice shampoo on the suggestion of a good friend when she heard we’d be spending our last week at a village school. Heads up, I left it in a hotel towards the end of our trip in hopes someone else could use it.

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Being Leaving from a winter climate only to be greeted by summer temperatures meant we had to be a bit creative on immediate travel clothes. The solution was purchasing coats for less than $12 at one of Ipswich’s Charity Shops only to surreptitiously abandon them outside Heathrow’s terminal doors. Mine being a plum-colored, alpaca wraparound would be sorely missed when facing future frigid weather; but, this loss was mitigated because no longer would I appear like a waddling, stuffed eggplant.

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Being based in England versus Maine like the rest of our fellow Boda-ists, our travel time was relatively easy:  left London for the airport at 4:30 a.m. and arrived less than 20 hours later in Hyderabad. We set our clocks five-and-a-half hours ahead. (Why the half hour? The eastern and western extremes of India are approximately one-and-a-half hours apart, so a compromise was made to create one all-inclusive time zone. This eliminated confusion which is what had occurred when the railway company decided to use one time zone and the government based its clocks on two different zones.)

All seven of us arrived within 30 minutes of one another, and Noel placed spell-binding garlands of jasmine around our necks. The enchantment had begun.

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HYDERABAD, City of Pearls

Friday, February 13th to Sunday, February 15th

Noel’s experience of not letting any of us nod off until 8 pm Friday night translated into an ongoing assault of our senses as the day flowed from one eye-popping sight, smell, touch to the next. This rapid-fire introduction also created an instant bond among all of us as tiredness turned to giddiness turned to deer-in-the-headlight looks.

What soon became apparent was not only would this tour under Noel’s guidance be an immersion into the non-touristy side of India but also the meeting of acquaintances who would become friends. The one disappointment was not meeting Anne and Carl who had to cancel due to last-minute illness.

As the day unfolded I experienced the sensory explosion to which other India travellers had alerted me.

Leaving the temple we ventured back to the hotel for desired showers and caffeine intake. Two hours later found us on our way to Pochampally, a weaving village an hour or so outside of Hyderabad. A bonus was having a young Iraqi friend of Noel’s, Ahmed, join us, who was soon treated as a long-lost nephew.

Speeding along the road to the village we saw some red blobs on the side of the road only to discover they were tomatoes, and, even more interesting, they were tomatoes with monkeys. Thankfully we didn’t disturb or distract them from their feast for I don’t think upset monkey with throwing arms would be a good combo.

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Reaching the village we realized we were an attraction, enough of one that a local reporter covered our visit in the local paper. Noel had arranged for a visit to the local clinic due to several of our group being in the medical field back home. The doctor’s consulting room became a wee bit crowded due to folk wanting to see the visitors from America. I’d include the article but it’s in the official language Telugu, which, like other local languages, appears like curlyques looping across a page.

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(FYI:  The shelf above the reporter is a tribute to this individual’s household deity. We found out every Hindu family has a selected god or goddess they worship, and, trust me, there are enough to go around).

As we walked along the warm dusty lanes I saw geometric designs in front of doors, or Hindu kolams, made each day in the hopes of bringing good luck to the household while driving away evil spirits. I later read that historically they were created with rice flour providing meals to ants and other insects in the form of a welcome. Now many use white stone powder because it’s easier to apply while providing a brighter color.

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During our stroll down one street and up another we all soon discovered that not only do the Indians not dislike having their photos taken but they actually want to have them snapped; and, if you’re in it, all the better. Layne was the first one to discover this lack of shyness when graciously asking one villager if we could take her photo. From then on, it was no-holds barred resulting in my camera card being jammed pack with portraits of god-knows-whom.

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This joyful phenomena was repeated throughout our entire month. Matter-of-fact Noel often had to turn around to herd several of his ‘peeps’ back into his fold as we all became engaged in snapping photos of these warm and gracious folk.

A highlight of our village walk was stopping in at a local school. In a brief interaction we were asked to sing a song followed by their standing and delivering their national anthem. Not sure why one little boy isn’t saluting but everyone else did. Of course, he may still have been reeling from seven, middle-aged Americans trying to carry a tune.

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Our last hour in the weaving village entailed the glorious color of silk and cotton saris. It was all I could do not to pull the bolts of luscious fabric out of their prim cabinets and unwind it around the room. I was in heaven. I almost felt drugged by the abundance of brilliant cloth. Here, to me, was a treasure trove.

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Returning to Hyderabad the relative tranquility of village life was quickly overtaken by the exuberance of the city’s streets. As we quickly snaked through the Old City’s bazaars we came into contact with the sights and sounds emerging from a cacophony of man, animal, and machine.

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Having been forewarned I was prepared somewhat for the sensory overload. But, what caught us off guard were the horns. Constantly long and short beeps would announce a three-wheel tuk-tuk coming up one side or the other while a truck adeptly avoided a collision with one of the god-zillion vehicles, both animal and man, found on the untamed streets of the city. Over the course of our month here our shrieks both internal and external lessened to sighs at not beating out the competition to the next intersection.

Seeing the words “Horn Please” or the more direct plea “Blow Horn” and looking questioning at Noel he explained beeping one’s horn is not considered offensive at all. Rather, it’s like a turn signal, a green/yellow/red light, or, as a last resort, a brake for there are no traffic rules here, it seems… only seemingly impossible, endless streams of moving objects. Amazingly there appear to be very few accidents.

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All I can say is hats off to any one who drives in India. The driving test must be based on a scenario of… (a) taking several sacred cows, an ox-drawn cart or two, kids towed by moms, elderly pedestrians lugging food parcels, fifteen helter-skelter tuk-tuks, twenty-something cars and trucks of varying sizes, and two lanes with no median… (b) shaking them up like a snow globe… (c) placing your vehicle in the midst… (d) and going for it. Over and over we experienced the thrill of traveling in India, and, I must admit, one of my proudest achievements was crossing the street on our own without Noel serving as our bodyguard between us and the oncoming vehicles.

Noel didn’t seem to mind shepherding those of us interested in ferreting out bargains. We soon learned the best technique was to pretend we were his harem, which became a well-rehearsed act throughout our time together when shopping. 

First, we would approach a stall and collectively descend upon the excited owner before spreading out to other vendors. Each vendor must have felt he’d died and gone to heaven upon having his small space fill with eagle-eyed female shoppers. 

Individually we would scrutinize the array of products, at times unsuccessfully trying to veil our keen interest in an item. After some nonchalant gazing we would engage the seller only to hear a price we initially thought ‘man, what a bargain’. This is when the vendors’ hopes were quickly dashed as Noel, our fearless leader, entered the discussion and efficiently lowered the price to something that left our eyes popping and wallets a lot fuller after the final transaction.

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We also mastered the art of quickly withdrawing no matter how longingly we backward-glanced at the stall when Noel uttered the command ‘let’s go’. Amazing what power those two words have. For, nine times out of ten, in less than 30 seconds, the vendor called us back in, agreed to Noel’s determined fair price, packaged the items up, and ushered us out of his store. Someone in the group aptly labeled this Noel’s Charm Offensive, quickly abbreviated to Noe’s C.O.

Because we definitely weren’t the first of Noel’s travel groups to engage in hyper-shopping, he knew the best vendors to visit for any and all needs. Our first night he took Layne, Leslie, Diana and me to get some clothes made from fabric we had purchased earlier that day. The cost was stunning for it was less than $5 (currency conversion was roughly 60 rupees to $1) to have a shirt made. And, it would be completed in less than 48 hours. All from a 12’ x 12’ shop that looked like controlled chaos.

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It was also while waiting for our turns to be measured, we practiced the art of bobble-heading. I can’t say I ever mastered the technique of wagging one’s head but not for the lack of trying. Furthermore I never really knew whether it indicated ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’. However, in spite of not being an efficient bobble-header, it is difficult not to begin using this contagious head wag.

The next morning we stopped alongside Hyderabad’s river, Musi. Even mottled with garbage you could imagine how beautiful it once was and could be ‘if only’.

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It was while gazing at the river that we espied some of the most impressive transporting of merchandise.

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How these guys managed to cycle with those loads I have no idea. Furthermore, how they loaded them up and kept them clean are two other miracles yet-to-be-explained.

Arriving in the Old City we parked close to one of the most famous landmarks of Hyderabad:  Charminar. Built in the 16th century by the Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, this ceremonial gateway sits at an intersection with four arches opening onto four streets. The buzz of the bazaar swirled around this structure, and it made for an easy locator in the event one became disoriented as seen behind Max.

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Close to Charminar is Chomahalla Palace, constructed over 200 years ago and the seat of the Nizams (local rulers). Part of the palatial complex is still used by the royal family. Princess Esra, who married into the family in 1956 and trained as an architect, has managed to save this royal residence by turning it into a money-making venture as a tourist site and wedding venue. An oasis amidst the flurry of humanity located just on the other side of its gates.

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The reception room was airy with over-the-top, decorated walls and ceilings.

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Outside the grounds were carefully tended. I wish I had gone closer to see if they were weeding with scissors. I wouldn’t have been surprised.

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It’s no wonder Chowmahalla is a popular wedding site.

Walking in the streets of the Old City we discovered how odd we looked to locals. Case in point:  Noel caught the conversation a young mother was having with her children as they passed these gangly white people. He later told us she answered their question about why we looked so different with explaining we came from across the ocean in a place called the United States where they speak a language called English.

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This feeling of being a minority was one of the many benefits of being with Noel. With a few exceptions, such as Agra, we rarely felt we were part of a typical tour of India. And, if we did find ourselves at a site visited by tourists, the tourists were usually Indians. Such as when we were inside the grounds of the palace.

As you can imagine just being on the streets was entertaining, from seeing men pound gold pellets into sheets…

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to catching sight of unusual mannequins…

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to reading ads stuck on the back of tuk-tuks…

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India was a land where it’s best to just relax into its exotic embrace.

We returned to the bazaar at night to be absorbed once again by the strangeness.

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Noel also took us to a store for those wanting to purchase pearls. It would be a good investment for any who did for Noel said a friend of his had purchased some for $30 only to have them appraised for $300 when home. I believe if we had done the math, Max and I would have filled our backpacks with strand upon strand; however, we left the buying to others as we watched our colleagues pour over the merchandize. Plus, I’m partial to the designs created by The Island Pearl, a business owned and operated by a family friend Leighton Reeve.

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On our way home we noticed neon signs flashing intriguing and inspiring messages:

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Later I read that She Teams had been formed in 2014 by Hyderabad Police. Below is a December 24th article form THE TIMES OF INDIA, which explains the concept:

HYDERABAD: The Cyberabad police have formed 60 ‘She’ teams to put an end to eve teasing menace in the IT corridor area and outskirts of the city. The Hyderabad Police had launched the initiative in October by forming 100 teams to crack the whip on eve teasers. Each ‘She’ team would comprise of about four to six police personnel, including an officer of the rank of SI or ASI, members of Special Operations Team (SOT), Task Force and women constables. 

All ‘She’ teams would be in mufti. The teams would be provided with spy cameras to gather evidence against offenders and private vehicles were being hired for `She’ teams to travel from place to place. 

Police identified 200 ‘hot spots’ in the Cyberabad commissionerate where eve teasing was rampant and the `She’ teams would be specially focusing on these spots.

What’s even better is the crime rate against women has been lowered thanks to these teams. One small, but successful, step in empowering women.

As mentioned earlier, I definitely felt we were experiencing facets of India that aren’t part of a typical tour such as interacting with locals. Not only did we meet locals but also some of Noel’s lovely family and friends. In addition to Ahmed, his friend studying physical fitness at one of the local universities, we were fortunate to share a lunch with Noel’s aunt and uncle as well as two of his nephews. (One of his nephews is involved with a friend’s trek in a solar tuk-tuk. For more info check out http://www.solartuktuk.com). This lunch was followed by a late dinner our last night in Hyderabad where we met a childhood friend of Noel’s, Raj, who’s also a chief consultant in India for Noel’s Global Institute company.

Our opportunity to meet these gracious folk began with a morning walk in Noels neighborhood, which featured a Sunday vegetable market. 

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Pointing out various fruits and vegetables we came to one stand where Leslie inquired about a particular food. The woman’s surprising response said with a kind smile was ‘google it’. The power of the Internet is definitely evident throughout India.

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While the fruits and vegetables were making me salivate, and the marigolds were pillowy piles of floral scent,

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the non-veggie selections were making me think twice about eating meat. We passed headless chicken torsos and gutted, fly-dotted hanks of fish. Not the most appetizing view along this hot and humid stretch of road.

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A surprise appearance of a camel in Noel’s backyard prompted two adventuresome souls, Diana and Leslie, to grace the animal’s back.

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The rest of us had experienced the thrill of going up and coming back down on a camel, so we waited with gleeful anticipation for the facial expressions when that occurred to our two fellow travellers. Thankfully Max documented it on video so cheap entertainment is only a click away :)

One individual we wished we had been able to meet was his mother. Unfortunately, she passed away last year, yet, we definitely felt her presence as we sat in her former, and now Noel’s, Indian home.

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Just as a side note, the reason we’re all laughing at the photographer is due to Max’s form of ‘say cheese’, which is his grabbing himself in an unusual place (or maybe not so unusual for a guy) before he snaps a shot. NOTE:  This grab will come to play later in our trip.

Later that day we visited Qutb Shahi Tombs with the first one built in the 1500s. The mausoleum of Hyderabad’s founder, Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth sultan, was located here. The Shahi Dynasty ruled the region from 1518-1687 until it was absorbed into the Mughal Empire. (The Mughal was the Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin ruling most of northern India from the early 16th century to mid 18th century. Although the Mughals were rulers for another century their power slowly diminished. The greatest of the Mughal emperors was Akbar who ruled from 1556-1605.)

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(Notice the different calendar years above: His death 1035 H. converts to 1612 C.E.)

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As we were walking towards one of the tombs I said hello to a young woman dressed in a burqa. I was startled when she responded with hardly any accent ‘what part of the States are you from?’. This led to a too-brief of a conversation for I would have liked to exchange more than polite greetings. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her, and, hopefully, she’d reciprocate with questions of me.

IMG_4608From there we took a cab to the famous Golconda fort situated just outside of Hyderabad.

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Golconda or “Shepherd’s Hill” was a citadel built in the late 10th century and became the seat of the Qutb Shahi dynasty.

Being a Sunday there were lots of people enjoying an outing, and we were often stopped for photo ops.

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Fortunately, I think I was the only one who snapped this shot…Max has always had an affinity for monkeys (perhaps the reason he married me is for my vocalization of a howler monkey)

IMG_4634We climbed to the top for some 360-degree gazing while stopping to admire the view along the way.

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Leslie had brought some smarties to hand out to kids. She allowed us to be the first to taste it. 

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Along the way we spotted a curious past-time taking place off to our right. Boys were taking squashed plastic bottles and sliding down a tiled ramp way.

IMG_4645Noel explained this was yet another example of India’s spending funds without thinking through the results:  the site needed easy access for those unable to climb stairs only to put in a tiled ramp that is so slick it caused fractures of those trying to use it; now it serves as a slide for inventive kids.

Once at the top we caught the setting sun, casting a mellow mood over our surroundings.

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A sound-and-light show ended our fort tour, and, boy, did it ever. We had heard they sprayed for mosquitoes. What we didn’t realize was ‘sprayed’ really meant ‘you will be soaked in DDT’.

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Some had smartly brought face masks, which only added to hilarity when we tried not to laugh and inhale as we were fumigated… twice… by the energetic sprayer.

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With that amount of DDT absorbed through our skins I’m surprised I didn’t wake up the next morning with a third arm poking out of my side.

However, contaminating the air with pesticide only seemed to smoke the mosquitoes out, not kill them, as swarms appeared to feast on exposed, tender flesh. And, like the one Max, Betsy, Carmen and I attended in Giza at the pyramids, this sound-and-light show would be best experienced in the comfort of one’s own home via you-tube and a stiff drink.

Our ride back cemented our bonding even further as we all needed to use the head. Being on a main road in India doesn’t preclude using it as a rest stop (if no bathrooms exist, you just create your own, no questions asked). While Max and Daniel headed off in one direction, Noel escorted us women to the other side of the road and pointed to an empty truck parked on the side. Here we initiated our peeing in a circle rite, one we used at least once more during our time together.

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After a full day it was time for dinner, and, just as he had superbly shepherded us in and around sites, Noel managed to navigate us through a barrage of Indian tastes. At each meal he ordered delicious dishes that I’ll never be able to remember the names except for one:  Mutton Briyani. It seemed, too, no matter where we were, mutton would appear on the menu then soon on our plates as one of the many dishes. Due to his partiality to this meat, we switched from calling ourselves Noel’s peeps to Noel’s muttonettes. A term that became more and more applicable as our time together lengthened. Frankly, I’m surprised none of us grew mutton hair for it most certainly was a staple in our diet.

With our first three full days drawing to a close, we prepped for our next adventure:  Kerala where the Arabic Sea kissed this country’s southern shore.

And, I don’t think I was the only one wondering if they served mutton in Kerala…