From hot to f@#%ing HOTTER: India Day 29 (Kochin to Delhi)

fishing nets near sundownTraveling in India in the second-hottest month of the year, we lamented the weather many times during our travels. But here we were, in the south of india, i.e., India, only hotter.

We liked Cochi as a town, liked the time we spent in Kerala. I mean, how could you not—Varkala, the backwaters, the 400 year old synagogue? It was the most humane, least mercenary time we’ve had so far in the country. But the heat was just too much. We had to leave.

Catholic churchWe did take a walk around the town citadel, first, and saw parts of the town where I wished we could’ve spent more time in: The coast, with those huge Chinese fishing nets (we actually got to see those in action and they were impressive. Like a Gilligan’s island trap, only eight times bigger and they worked. We saw the area church (another centuries-old building), did a teeny bit more shopping, and piled into a cab.

The cab to the airport was about 90 minutes longer than we’d expected. Our driver, as it turns out, also fancied himself a psychic. He foresaw great career success for Natacha in the future—interesting since she’s going back to school for the next few years. I don’t think he predicted anything for me.

He certainly didn’t predict the hour or so of torrential rainstorms that started just as we entered the airport. Nor did he predict the dozens of soldiers that filled the airport lobby, after which they escorted out two guys in coveralls, lingered around a while longer, and left. But I imagine he could’ve predicted our plane would take off late. Hell, I could've predicted that. This is India, after all.

We got into Delhi around 8 PM, at which time the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius. At 8 PM. Fortunately, we’d reserved an AC room in a decent place.  Slept with the intent to get up crazy early for a train north, to Haridwar.


No arms, no chocolate

In which we find religion (our own): India Day 28 (Kochin)

Paradesi Synagogue, from my POV sitting at the pew

Photos of the Kochi paradesi synagogue interior courtesy of Wouter Hagens via Wikipedia Commons. We weren't allowed to take photos in the synagogue.

After a fun day of shopping, chatting, and exploring, we took a crack at going to a 400-year old synagogue for Shabbat. It was closed during the day b/c of Passover, but we were told that it might be open for the Friday service. Worth a shot.

The 400 year old Synagogue (exterior)

Once there, a Keralan man told us that there would be a service, but that it would be a short one, as it was Passover weekend and there weren’t enough men around that weekend for a minion (people were visiting their families and whatnot). I think that man might have been a shabbas-goy or something.

Eventually, a thin little old man in his 70s (80s?) in huge glasses and a kippah showed up. He looked like a cross between an Indian Don Ameche and my Grandpa Ned. He spoke to the Shabbas-goy in Hindi, then asked us if we wanted to come in for Shabbat. We eagerly nodded yes.

He led us in, and we removed our shoes, even though he said we didn’t have to.

The synagogue was beautiful, oozing 400 years of history from every wooden pew, every mosaic’d tile, from each ornate chandelier and each of the hundreds of colored blown-glass globes hanging from the ceiling.

It was smallish for a synagogue—maybe the size of two winnebagos side-by-side, with maybe a dozen pews in the back, a half-dozen along one side, and a few long benches along the other side. The walls, the ceiling, the podium—everything was touched by a love for this place and its history. Multiple chandeliers hung down, as did the hundreds of blown-glass bubbles (sea-glass?) and other ornaments

The center podium was similarly ornate. The floor was bare. A few stacks of siddurim lay next to the center podium. The three of us were the only people in the synagogue.

The old man motioned for Natacha to sit on the women’s; side, and bade me sit next to him on the men’s side. He had decent English, with an accent that was part Indian, part almost Yiddish. I wish I knew the man’s history, but I didn’t want to pry.

He had huge thick glasses. I imagined him to be a long-lived merchant in the area. I took a prayer book and sat in the back pew next to him.

We talked for a while, mostly me answering questions about where I was from and about American politics. I so wanted to ask him about himself, his life in India, but I was a guest in a revered place, and I didn’t feel it was my place.

A heavyset man in a sarong and kippah showed up and spoke to the old man in Hindi, glancing at me briefly. They chatted for a bit, then in accented English, he asked me where I grew up. I told him, “Los Angeles. California.” He smirked and said, “Los Angeles. California. Like I don’t know where Los Angeles is.” He would tease me about that several times over the course of the evening. Turns out the guy was a teacher from Cleveland, dividing his time between India and Israel (which would account for the accent).

He then hammered me with questions about where I was from, my religious background, my job, all in that asserting-status sort of way that I find Israelis do. He asked me where I spent Passover, and criticized me for not finding somewhere to spend Passover in India.” The Internet,” he said. “look up India and Passover,” as if it was as easy as that. Hell, maybe it was.

Soon, we all settled down and the men started praying. I’d read what I could from the siddur, and look around this beautiful space, at the blown-glass spheres in the ceiling…

…and this feeling came over me. Like I belonged, in a way I don’t anywhere else. The fact that here I was, half-way around the world, and these people took me in; and that together we enacted thousand-year-old rituals together, ones we all KNEW…filled me with such a sense of connection, of belonging, that I got choked up afterwards.

II felt so grateful to be there, to be accepted. Particularly in a country where we’re so out of place.

At the end of the service, the old man had the caretaker guy open up the arc, and we got to see and touch the four Torahs, each with a breast plate that was one of the first things that the Jews brought to Cochin, centuries ago.

We did the Kiddush over the wine at the center podium, then separated as the regulars went home or went visiting. It was one of the most genuinely moving experiences I’ve had in this country. Or ever.

Back to the backwaters: India day 27 (Kerala Backwaters to Kochi)

washing by the river with a knowing smile Don’t let anyone tell you that sleeping by the river is “cool,” not temperature-wise, anyway. Natacha & I barely slept during our night on the Kerala backwaters. the mosquito net was too close to the bed, which meant that it rested on my foot and/or cheek most of the night, unless I laid diagonal on the bed, which needless to say is not fun for Natacha.

big honking cup of chaiThat was really the only drawback to our trip, though. From our room, we watched the sun rise over the canals, had a yummy coconut-laced breakfast, and enjoyed a nice, slow return to the houseboat docks. One of the most worthwhile experiences of our trip. Our boat & captain

In fact, we liked it so much, as soon as we got off the boat, we immediately booked a longboat excursion, so we could visit the small canals that the big houseboat couldn’t go.

This took three hours and was just as wonderful. These were the backwaters of the backwaters: tiny networks of shallow waters where we saw close-up what the houseboats couldn’t get near. We saw people’s homes, farms, their ducks and chickens, their neighborhoods, and really stunning foliage.

ox shack

family occasion

post-backwater thaliAfter a quick lunch in Aleppey, we got on a bus to Kochi, a town we’d heard much about. After a sleepless night, four hours in the hot Kerala sun, and several hours on buses and taxis, we were EXHAUSTED.

We found a room in the third place we looked at (not the cleanest, but it had a/c and we were the only people there). I wasn’t feeling my best (it had been a nutty week, after all), but we found a neat couple to have dinner with. They were a young French duo who had chosen to travel India and China on—get this--a tandem bicycle. i.e. they were nuts. We joined them for dessert as well, and listened to their various stories of traveling through India on a FUCKING TANDEM BICYCLE. Insane.

Tried to sleep, failed, did 90 min of yoga, finally slept.

Forward, to the backwaters: India Day 26 (Varkala to Alleppey

our boat pilot Jesus! That took some doing. Woke up in Varkala, though not too early, thank good. Instead of getting up at 5 AM, we decided to take the late train to the bus to Allepey.

The famous slow boat trip along these south Indian backwaters are universally recognized as one of the best excursions you can take in the entire country. After a tuk-tuk to a train to a bus, we arrived about three hours later at a dusty bus station in Alleppey, not 100% knowing how to take the next step. i.e. booking a houseboat to sail us along the Kerala backwaters. We couldn’t even find the boat docks.

And as was our habit, we ended up there during the hottest part of the day. Of course, it didn’t take long for the touts to arrive. Even rested and refreshed as we were, it was still a horrendous ordeal. We were beset by several, and waved them off as best we could. The most persistent one, well, persisted, and we gave in after he offered to hire a tuk-tuk at his expense to take us to the boat docks. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in front of several dozen houseboats, all lined up shoulder-to-shoulder.

Our tout, whom I’ll call “Hazel” as he had these crazy hazelnut-colored eyes, called to various boats, apparently taking us to the ones who would work with him. We started with a small boat, captained by Hazel’s cousin, which was ok but not great. We’d stashed our stuff there and tried others, getting farther and farther away from our bags as we went down the line.

The second boat was a good one, but in negotiating, the captain seemed dead set on overcharging and undersupplying us. This guy was also apparently Hazel’s cousin. Uh-oh.

After this point, we set off to get our bags and get rid of hazel. But he—guess what—persisted, and together we found the right boat. Built for a much larger party than us, it was still willing to take us—not least because it was low season and most boats had gotten booked an hour before we showed up.

Hazel negotiated it for us, but couldn’t get the price we wanted. No big surprise, given that his commission probably figured into it. We insisted on talking with the boat’s owner, who showed up an hour later. We got closer, but still paid a bit more than we wanted: around $120. But given that the price covered 24 hours on a 2-bedroom houseboat, a crew of 5, and three meals, we didn’t mind flashpacking a little. Say what you will about India, but the prices are nothing to sneeze at.

Besides, the roof deck on this boat was awesome.

Natacha, backwater pimpin'

house boat fin They call the boat a slow boat for a reason: It travels very S-L-O-W-L-Y. But the slowness really takes you to a different place, or rather, pace. We inched down palm-lined waterways for hours, watching life among the rivers and canals of this beautiful area.

We saw villagers wash their clothes (or themselves), walk down the jetties, sit in chairs watching the boats go by, and turn their heads away when I tried to take their photos.

boy rowing a chest of drawers, apparently

man washing clothes

Birds flew from palm to palm. No one waved, simply going along with their business.

woven boat

At one point from the roof deck, Natacha looked out on the waters and said, “It’s supremely beautiful.” Good a way as any to describe it.

Teatime consisted of fried bananas.

Ken in the houseboat living room

Around six, we watched the sunset from the roof deck. After sunset we walked along the riverbank, running into a brit couple and walking together for a while. Then it was back to the boat for dinner, which was DELICIOUS…not least of which because everything was made with some form of coconut: Chopped, shredded, milk. Note to self: cooking with coconut = yum!



Escape from TVD: India Day 21 (Trivandrum--Varkala)

With Natacha feeling better, and myself on the mend as well, we packed up our packs and headed to the TVD train station. waiter at India Coffee ShopOur breakfast was at a fascinating Indian Coffee shop, actually called the India Coffee Shop. This one had this nutty winding hallway where you literally had to climb higher and higher to get to your table. It was a chain; like an Indian Denny’s. Families went there, people celebrated there, and it was a reliable place to go to get your morning dosa & coffee.

En route to AllepeyA 45-minute train to Varkala was all it took for us to start our vacation (from our vacation). Once we got to Varkala, everything was just easier. We got a tuk tuk from the trains station without any problem. We stayed at the first guest house we found.

our room, our mosquito net We spent the day doing nothing but walking along the Cliffs that overlooked the beach, just checking out the scene. We took in so much, including the sun, that we ended up getting overheated.

Somewhere in there, I got another haircut and shave. Having not shaved nor bathed properly in several days, it just made more sense to cut my hair off. The shave part was just plain indulgent. post-hospital shave

Natacha photographed it, to make sure that there'd be no funny business with the razor. We lunched at an underwhelming place (thanks for the recco Lonely Planet!), where we chatted and played around with a 5 year old orphan who was taken in by the family that ran the restaurant. They had ho money to school him, so they watched over him at the restaurant.

We ate at a vegetarian place with almost no light by which to read the menu, and went to sleep. Lovely part of the world.

Varkala, interrupted: India Day 20-21 (Delhi--Trivandrum)

The morning in Delhi just flew by, what with getting ready, taking it easy that day, and what not. We got to the airport in the late afternoon for our plane from Delhi to Trivandrum, the closest airport to Varkala. Why Varkala? Well, we wanted to see India’s south, and had planed to meet Dani there, but my hospital stay prevented that. But we had the plane tickets so off we went.

Before that, though, we were off to Dani & Ashik’s hotel. Unlike our ten-dollar-a-day diet, they chose a fancy, FANCY resort outside Delhi, close to the airport. So we went to visit them there. VERY kibosh. I think they had marble floors. And a swimming pool! You have no idea how nice a swimming pool can feel until you’ve been in India two weeks.

(Natacha doesn't want me to post those pictures because, you know, bathing suits)

We hauled ass (late!) to the Delhi airport, with the usual hassles and late flights. Natch ate some in-flight food that didn’t agree with her, and was sick by the next morning. That’s right, folks. poor natacha can only eat soupFantastic ThaliIndia is such hard traveling that even the AIRPLANE food will get you.

The next morning I found us an A/C room that she would be more comfortable in and searched for clean bandages for my forehead. It was across from a soccer field and near at least one good restaurant. We had an amazing Thali—um, actually, I had it, Natacha wasn’t feeling up to it and had a bowl of soup instead.

We found our way to the outdoor market, which was a cramped and full of exciting visuals, but Natacha wasn’t feeling her usual market-loving self.

So we walked across town back to our neighborhood for a quiet dinner, spotting the local YMCA along the way, with this unfortunately named class: "Catch them Young."

unfortunate class title

Trivandrum isn’t anything to be excited about…just a place to wait until your wife feels better. Give it a miss.