Sivananda Yoga Ashram, Neyyar Dam

At the beginning of March, I said goodbye to my parents and went to the Sivananda Yoga Ashram outside Trivandrum for a week. The asana classes were great and I met many nice people. However, the strict rules and the chanting for several hours a day was a bit too much.

the main hall

lunch time

We celebrated the festival of Shivaratri and chanted Om Nama Shivaya all night long.

Pouring ghee into the fire



These are traditional Chinese fishing nets throughout Cochin's harbor.

Kathakali is a traditional and colorful dance/drama/art form of Kerala and the required makeup involved is painstaking.

There's an old 13th-Century synagogue in old Cochin on, you guessed it, Jew Street.

Inside one of Cochin's cathedrals, (a setting for some scenes in Salman Rushdie's A Moor's Last Sigh), this hanging apparatus is actually a fan - useful for the freaking hot and humid weather here.

Mecca is that way...in case you needed to know. This was on the ceiling of my room at Le Meridien in Cochin - the first time I've seen such a sign.


Backwaters of Kerala

After a couple weeks with my parents and their travel group in the North, we flew from Delhi to Cochin to the South Indian state of Kerala. Kerala seemed like a different country after the North: no honking horns on the roads, hardly any wandering cows and much less garbage on the streets. We immediately went further south to spend three nights on a small armada of houseboats. These boats were previously rice barges and have been converted for tourists to explore the Keralan backwaters - a complex of rivers connecting villages and rice fields. Compared to the fast-paced sight-seeing and the chaotic cities of the North, the backwaters were very relaxing. At Ramesh's farm outside Dharamsala, I had read Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things and a book of short stories and essays edited by Anita Nair. These books gave me some insight into the state of Kerala, or God's Own Country, as it is called. In Kerala my small bit of Hindi proved useless as their language is Malayalam, but English was fairly widespread. Many of India's states, especially in the south, have their own languages and even their own film industries. Indian rupees have 14 official Indian languages on the notes. And these aren't like some small local languages. Since India is so huge, its states have large populations, so there are something like 65 million Malayalam-speaking Keralans - a larger population than many other countries. Kerala also has the highest literacy rate in India. A woman from Cochin told us that many Keralans become doctors and engineers and so they have to import laborers from other states of India because there aren't enough in Kerala .

We would dock our houseboats and go through strolls through river-side villages while our guide Cleetus explained stuff along the way. This is coir, or coconut fiber. It is produced in villages and used to make ropes, rugs, handicrafts and so on. Coconuts are everywhere in South India.

Kerala has had a democratically-elected Communist government since 1957. There are government shops selling inexpensive groceries to all and other shops that sell four items (sugar, rice, gram, propane?) at very cheap prices to those who are below poverty line. The roads and homes in Kerala seemed nicer and the prices also higher than North India. Sometime in the last 50? years, the government enacted land reforms in which rich land owners had to give some of their land to the poor (lower-caste) workers who had farmed for them for generations.

Keralan men traditionally wear man-skirts, called lunghis or mundus. All day, they re-tie them and hike them up or take them down. I think they're cool in the heat.

Interesting kid's t-shirt

Cleetus would point these rocks out as local washing machines...below some in action...

The only Malayalam I was able to recognize is here, the word for toddi or fermented coconut sap?, which gets stronger (more alcoholic) throughout the afternoon. Reminded me of coconut kefir.

Greg relaxing while some of the crew took care of us and the boat.  If you're new to Overseas Adventure Travel, mention customer # 946347 when calling, and they'll give each new traveler a $100 discount off their first trip.  That's in addition to any other savings that are available.

My parents with Cleetus

Rice grains

Rice field

Rice being cooked

Rice served on houseboat...

A catholic church. Kerala has a long history in the spice trade and has been receiving traders from the Middle East and Europe for um ever. Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims all co-exist here. Supposedly, Doubting Thomas, one of Jesus' disciples came to Kerala in AD 25 and converted lots of locals. They are called Orthodox Syrian Christians. Some of the more ancient Christian texts were found in Kerala, and they even had their Sabbath on Saturdays like the Jews (Jesus was Jewish, remember?) But when the Portugese Catholics came, they believed the brand of Keralan Christianity was heretical and so they tried to destroy its books and churches. Christianity was particularly attractive to Indians of lower-castes for converting was a way out of the caste system.

Village temple

Arabian Sea

Varanasi: Burning and Learning

Varanasi is called the city of burning and learning. Burning because corpses are cremated along the Ganges River. It is believed that if one is burned alongside the Ganges one can attain moksha or liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Learning because Varanasi has always been a city of academic and spiritual education. Some say Varanasi is the world's oldest city. And it's a pretty intense place: corpses, hawkers, saddhus, beggars, beggar-saddhus, beggars missing various limbs, baby beggars, children beggars, tourists, pilgrims, locals, cows, urine, feces, lots of garbage and myriad stenches, all crammed next to the holy Ganges River. The smells in India are often so very overwhelming. The powerful stench of urine, feces and garbage can sometimes be amazing...amazing that smells can be so awful and so strong. Sometimes my nostrils feel like I'm being assaulted, but I'm definitely becoming more habituated. Sometimes on the roadways or train, there is an industrial type smell in the air, like burning plastic or burning rubber that hurts your head to breathe. You just know that it's toxic, but it's the norm for so many Indians. In the photo above, this saddhu posed for me in exchange for ten rupees. He insisted that I give him more money. I used to sort of romanticize saddhus as mystical spiritual men, but most (not all) that I see remind me more of washed up junkies and beggars of America - laying on the sidewalk beseeching passersby for money and smoking hash. (I'm waaay behind in keeping my blog updated; these photos are from February - still with my parents and their tour group.)

Sunrise on the Ganges

This guy was selling DVDs from this boat and running a TV from a generator.

If you're new to Overseas Adventure Travel, mention customer # 946347 when calling, and they'll give each new traveler a $100 discount off their first trip.  That's in addition to any other savings that are available.

The Ghats are steps leading down to the water's edge.

Dhobis (laundry-persons) doing laundry.

Three on a bike, including one with no pants

Burning corpses

Receiving candles to drop into the river to make a wish...(or something like that).

Mom and Dad wearing the orange scarves. Orange is the color of those who choose to renounce worldly things.

The evening aarti (devotional ceremony) seen from the river