Exploring India (Chapter 2)

Having spent the weekend exploring what is commonly referred to as the Golden Triangle (Delhi – Agra – Jaipur) with Tim and Katie, I arrived back into Mumbai late Sunday evening as I had to be at work on Monday.

That Tuesday, another one of my closest friends, Lucas, who I’ve known since I was 8 years old, was flying into visit me. He arrived late on Tuesday evening and I, along with Moorthy the driver, were at the airport to pick him up. We spent the evening enjoying the Duty Free Woodford Reserve (imported whiskey is 2-3 times more expensive in India than the States and the bourbon selection is extremely limited) he picked up for me and just catching up with each other. Lucas is a very talented filmmaker,  3-D animator, and adventurer. He also played a part in my decision to move abroad. I’ve always admired his free spirit and willingness to take on any challenge whether it be hang-gliding, choosing an entirely different career path, or moving to a new city. He had some time before his move from L.A. to Vancouver and I was really glad he decided to spend that break with me in India.

The rest of the week I had to work, so like when Tim and Katie were in town, I set up the walking tour of old Bombay, and had Moorthy take him around to other major sights of the city. In the evenings, we’d meet up, grab some delicious Indian food and just talk.

Friday evening Tim and Katie were arriving back to Mumbai after spending some time in Udhaipur and Jodhpur. Upon arriving back into Mumbai, they met up with me, Lucas, and a few other friends at a local watering hole next to my work, The Bar Stock Exchange. I had grand visions, initially, of taking them to some of the interesting nightlife spots in Mumbai, but we were all just having such a good time, we just stayed there and then moved the festivities to my place. It was great having so many of my close friends from the States, all together, enjoying and sharing part of this Mumbai experience with me.

The next day, based on a suggestion from Tim that I was more than happy to oblige, I was taking up Elisabetta, Lucas, Tim and Katie for an aerial tour of Mumbai. I was able to reserve a Cessna 206 from the Mumbai Flying Club, which was a particularly well-appointed six-seater Cessna. We grabbed brunch at one of my frequented stops, the Smoke House Deli, then went to pick up Elisabetta and make our way to the private airport, nestled just underneath the busy International and Domestic Airport.

Shortly after our arrival at the Juhu Beach Airport, we were ushered through the rather strict security checkpoint and then hopped on a shuttle bus that transported us to the Bombay Flying Club. We met Captain Muhir, a friend and well accomplished pilot, who would be sitting in the right seat as my US pilot license was still being transferred to an Indian license (a rather laborious process). We then loaded up and headed out.

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Lucas, Tim, and Katie in the 206
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Photo by Lucas

 

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A great shot Lucas took as we passed in low over a small fishing village.

I’ve mentioned previously how seeing Mumbai from the sky provides a wonderful sense of perspective for a place that can sometimes feel overwhelming. Sharing that experience with my friends made it even more special.

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The whole crew in front of our bird after the flight around the northern part of Mumbai.

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Shortly after landing at the Juhu airport, Lucas and I needed to make our way over to the Domestic terminal to catch a commercial flight down to Kochin in the state of Kerala. We all loaded up in the car and then I said my goodbyes to Tim and Katie as they would be heading out that evening back to the States. It really was incredible having them visit over the last couple weeks and to explore parts of India together. I’m already looking forward to our next adventure together.

Lucas and I arrived into Kochin around 10 pm that Saturday evening. We booked a prepaid cab at the airport and then started the 1 hour and 30 minute drive to our hotel. We were staying at a small, simple but well-decorated place called the Niyati Boutique Homestay in the old part of Kochin called Fort Kochin. By the time we arrived at the homestay and checked in, it was quite late so we called it a night to get a good start for the next day.

The next morning, we decided to take some time to walk around and explore the area. While planning our events for the day, we were both keen on the idea of taking a Keralan cooking class. Looking through the guide book, there were several recommended options. Unfortunately with it being a Sunday, every cooking class was either full or not open. A little discouraged, we decided to look for other afternoon activities while out. There was a small tea and coffee shop just a short walk from our homestay, and as soon as we stepped out of our homestay and walked 50 feet, what did we see? A sign for Kerala cooking classes outside a small adjacent building. What luck! The door was open, so we walked in and inquired about the cooking classes and if there was availability today. The shop owner asked us to wait one minute, then made a call. We soon found out it was his wife that gave the cooking classes and with the help of her sister-in-law they would give us a private class in the early afternoon. Excellent!

We continued on our way to the breakfast spot, smiling about the happy coincidence of finding an available cooking class so near by. The small coffee shop had a good selection of teas and coffees which also served Western style breakfast. After we had something to eat, we headed out. The coastal parts of Kerala have long been known for their plentiful fishing waters, and more specifically how they fish these waters. Dotted throughout the shores of Kerala are large Chinese fishing nets which are operated by teams of fishermen. Walking along the shore, we stopped to watch the still operational fishing nets as they hauled in their meager catches.

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A juxtaposition of old commerce, the Chinese fishing nets, with the new commerce, one of the many large shipping vessels scattered along the coast.

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The rest of the morning was spent just walking around Fort Kochin (there is actually no fort in Kochin which was a bit misleading I thought). It’s a quiet city with a number of simple but elegant churches throughout. The Portuguese influence is still very much evident and one of the churches, St. Francis Church, was once home to the body of the Portugese explorer Vasca de Gama, as he died here in Kochin. His body was later moved to Portugal, but I thought it was interesting that one of the most well-known explorers spent his last days on this earth in the same city.

Soon enough it was time to head back towards the homestay as our cooking class would be starting soon. We dropped off our stuff at the hotel, and also had a few minutes to look around the place in the light of day. It was a nice place which had a small, covered, rooftop lounge area that would be perfect for an evening beer.

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After we dropped our stuff off, we walked next door to start our cooking class. As previously mentioned the wife of the shop owner and her sister-in-law would be our teachers and we opted to go for the vegetarian dishes. On the menu for the day was a vegetable curry, cabbage thoran, bhindi (okra) frost, and chapati. Everything would be made from scratch and our instructors proved to be both patient and helpful. I was in charge of note-taking as these were recipes our instructors knew by heart and Lucas was in charge of photo/video-documenting everything.

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Our main instructor spoke somewhat limited English, but I can say that her English was far better than our Malayalam (the local Keralan dialect). The overall meal preparation took about an hour and by then we were hungry. The food was flavorful and very fresh. It doesn’t cease to amaze me the large variety of wonderful vegetarian dishes you can find in India. It has certainly curbed my habit of having meat for every meal. (All photos below were by Lucas).

After the delicious lunch, we thanked the ladies, paid our tab and headed back out to continue walking around Kochi. On our way out, they asked if we wanted to have breakfast there in the morning and we quickly agreed. When asked if there was anything in particular we wanted, I requested dosas (a thin almost crepe-like pancake), sambar (minced vegetable stew, common in the morning), and chutney (typically made from coconut though there are many types).

On the East side of Kochi (I’ve just realized I alternate between spelling it Kochi and Kochin, in which case I should note that both are acceptable) was the main shopping part of town known as Mattancherry. But the neighborhood in the heart of Mattancherry that is known for its shops goes by another name. It’s called Jewtown. It feels odd writing that, but that was the name, so off to Jewtown we went. This should come as no surprise but it was named after the number of Jewish settlers that came here during the 1500’s fleeing persecution from the Portugese.

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The shop filled streets of Jew Town.

Along the main road were numerous artisan shops. Many of these places sold fantastic wares made by artists from the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.

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Colored powders for sale, which are often used during celebrations, especially during Holi.

We meandered through the streets, stopping occasionally to buy gifts for friends and family. After a couple hours we headed back towards the homestay as there was a Kerala cultural dance performance we wanted to check out, which was located close to our place. So we hopped in a rickshaw and headed back to the Fort Kochin area.

The Kathakali dance has its origins in Kerala dating back to the 17th century. In it, male performers play both female and male roles, while wearing colorful make-up. The performers will use highly-emotive facial and arm gestures during the show, to express their characters thoughts and feelings.

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Photo by Lucas
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Photo by Lucas

The performance started off with a brief explanation of what each gesture meant, along with an impressive display of the actors ability to control their eyes and face in coordination with the music.

The premise of the play led one to believe the creator had to have been high on LSD or some other form of hallucinogenic drug as it concluded with the main character, a god, chopping off the breasts of a female version of the devil. But, it was still a really interesting show. The bright paints and ornate costumes the performers used were impressive and the show in general made you think about when this type of cultural performance was first developed. It was such a creative way to convey a story, long before movies were around.

After the performance, we decided to grab a few beers and enjoy the rooftop lounge.

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Photo by Lucas

We took some time to talk about the performance and I especially enjoyed hearing Luke’s take on it, with him being a visual artist as well. After some time, we were ready for dinner and walked to a well-reviewed seafood restaurant. The fresh Kerala seafood was delicious as we had our first taste of a couple different types of local fish made in traditional Keralan recipes. With our stomachs full, we headed back to the hotel to hang out and then grab some sleep.

Monday we would be leaving Kochi and heading to Kumarakom to board our houseboat, but that didn’t leave until noon. So we decided to get in an early morning yoga session to start the day. The class was held at the Cochin Club, an event hall, and we were led there by our Yogi for the morning. He was an interesting, bald-headed gentleman that was quite proud of his posters he made sure to pointed out as we passed them. When we walked into the grounds of the Cochin Club, which had a well-manicured lawn in front of a sprawling bungalow, Lucas observed, “looks like there was quite the party here last night,” as the grounds were covered in white tents, tables, and chairs. To which our Yogi responded, “it wasn’t a party, it was a wedding.” Luke and I looked at each other and nodded, passing by empty beer bottles strewn alongside the pathway.

The session itself was great and afterwards made me realize how I have not been taking advantage of the extraordinary yoga facilities available here in India. My body and mind were refreshed and provided a great start to the day. There is one memory in particular that I’ll take with me from the experience which isn’t really of a spiritual nature. We were in a class of about five people of varying fitness levels. One of which, was a bit on the heavy side so during certain poses our Yogi would give her alternate poses or exercises to do. During one such instance, while we were working on a particularly challenging set of poses our Yogi instructed our hefty classmate to roll on the floor the length of the room. She was rolling.. on the floor. Seeing a particularly large woman rolling  around, made it especially difficult to maintain focus on our poses. It was hilarious.

After yoga, we headed back to where we had our cooking class the previous day to have a breakfast of dosas, sambar, and chutney. Every few minutes she would bring out a freshly made dosa and put it on our plate, as it was then quickly devoured. Everything was freshly made that morning and it was all very good.

We then gathered our stuff from the home stay, checked out, and got in a taxi to make the 1 1/2 hour drive to where we would board our houseboat. The backwaters of Kerala are known for their elegant houseboats which navigate the inland waters of the area. You can either rent one for just a day cruise or for overnight cruises. We opted to go for a one-night cruise leaving from a small town called Kumarakom and would take us out into a Vembanad Lake, situated about 2 km inland from the Arabian sea.

Arriving at our pick-up location, the large two-bedroom houseboat awaited us along with its crew. These Keralan houseboats, also known as kettuvallam, are made entirely of wood and bamboo.

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After getting on board, we were provided with fresh coconuts to enjoy while the boat was prepped for our journey. We soon pushed away from the docks and navigated through the murky but scenic backwaters of Kerala.

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Photo by Lucas
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Two of our crew

Soon into the journey, one of the members of our crew (there were three total) asked if we wanted to pick up some fresh seafood, to which we answered very much in the affirmative. The crew modified our route slightly and in no time we were docking next to a small building along the water that was selling freshly caught seafood. Entering the shop, there were many worthwhile options, though we ultimately selected huge freshwater tiger prawns and a silver pomfret, all caught that morning.

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Dinner

Our fresh seafood was handed off to the crew and we shoved off. The afternoon was spent cruising around the lake as we absorbed the sights and the laid-back vibe of the Kerala backwaters.

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Lunch aboard the houseboat. We didn’t go hungry.

Luke and I

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Photo by Lucas. Obviously.

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Kerala is a very popular place for both foreigners and Indians alike. And part of the reason I believe it is so popular with those that live in India is because it is so unlike city life. Living in Mumbai is hectic, crowded, all about getting from point A to B. Being out on the backwaters just dials things down. You’re not going any particular place and doing so in no hurry. The scenery is quiet, serene, and beautiful. It was just what I needed.

Prior to dinner we opted to get Ayurvedic massages, as this area was known for that type of massage. I was a little unclear about what exactly an Ayurvedic massage was, and now I know it is basically an oil massage. Lots and lots of oil. The massage started with the masseuse dumping what must have been half a bottle of oil into my hair. I thought this was an appropriate time to inquire about the availability of on-site showers to which I was promptly told, no, they didn’t have them. Overall the massage was pretty good, but it was finished off with me being placed into what could best be described as a wooden steam box or small sweating torture chamber. My head protruded out the top of this wooden box that would fill with steam, and was closed and locked from the outside. I had no way of getting out and realized that I had put a lot of faith in my masseuse. Luckily I was let out after I had sweat out 3-4 liters of fluids, and at that point I really wished they had on-site showers. Alas, I’d have to wait until I was back on the boat.

That evening, after a quick shower, the crew cooked up both our seafood and a bevy of other items that was far too much for two people to finish. After dinner, we just hung out in the open-air living room talking about everything from religion and spirituality to filmmaking. One of the things I so enjoy about hanging out with Lucas is while we might not always agree, we both listen and respect one another’s opinion and I know I genuinely enjoy the discourse and perspective he has.

The next morning, breakfast was ready when we woke up and the boat was soon pushed off for a quick morning trip through the waters. Specifically, we were headed back out to the main lake as Lucas had a small side project he wanted to take care of. Prior to Lucas coming to India, he had worked out a deal with Sony to use their new Sony RX100 which shoots in super slo-mo and is very portable; in exchange for a 15 second clip they could choose to post on their website. In preparation for that, we brainstormed a few ideas to capture a truly unique India experience. Ultimately, the idea involved me jumping off the front of the houseboat with colored powder being thrown on either side. We briefly explained the concept to the crew and they seemed eager to help, though they didn’t seem to completely understand either.

So we spent the morning getting the shots of us throwing colored powder and me jumping off the front of the boat, then quickly swimming to the aft of the boat to get back on board. It was a lot of fun, and below is the 15 second clip he pulled together from it.

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A picture with the crew after the video shoot.

Afterwards, we arrived back at the pick-up point and a driver I had reserved was waiting for us. We loaded our bags in the back of the Innova and began the nearly four hour drive up to Munnar. Munnar is a small town located in the midst of the Western Ghats at around 5,600 ft (1,700m).

The drive was long but especially as we got closer to Munnar, the scenery began to change quickly. The roads became significantly steeper and the trees became dense and lush. Occasionally cars would be stopped on the side of the narrow road to take pictures of monkeys hanging languidly in the trees. In many instances, there was evidence of recent rock slides that had blocked the two lane road, and we began to look nervously over the road’s edge, hoping a new rock slide wouldn’t be waiting for us ahead.

Since we knew that the day was quickly slipping away, what with the four hour drive and all, when we reached Munnar we quickly checked in, dropped off our stuff, then went into town to grab lunch. Within the city of Munnar a popular, local restaurant was recommended by our driver which served South Indian thalis. Thali, is a style of dining that is traditionally served on a banana leaf and includes several small vegetarian dishes, crispy Indian flatbread called Papadum, soft flatbread called rotis, several other small side dishes, and dessert. When done right, it is really good, and this proved to be no exception. It was very nice and during lunch we met a few fellow travellers from Europe we swapped stories with.

When we finished up with lunch we made our way to a nearby elephant camp to do some elephant riding and then hopefully bathe the elephants.

This was something we were both very much looking forward to, but I’ll admit that upon entering the elephant camp, the sense of excitement seemed to wane a bit. The place just seemed a bit off. Overall, the elephants appeared to be well taken care of, but I think we were both expecting or maybe hoping for a place that seemed a bit more like the elephants natural habitat. Despite that, we still enjoyed being in the presence of the seemingly gentle giants.

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I’ll admit that we thought the slight discoloration on the elephants might be a result of malnourishment or poor care, but after doing some quick research on-line we found out this change in color is very normal for Asian elephants. That made us feel better. We hung out at the camp for a while, enjoying an elephant ride and then even bathing the largest land-walking mammals. This included Luke and I taking turns on the backs of the elephants as the elephants sprayed us with water from their trunks. A pretty wild experience. Eventually, being in dire need of a shower (the ayurvedic oils still being in our hair) we made our way back to the hotel.

It’s at this time that I mention how incredibly beautiful the landscape is in and around Munnar. Tea plantations cover the steep hillsides all around, creating these picturesque patterns in the undulating landscape.

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Photo by Lucas

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The entire time going around Munnar and the surrounding hillsides, I was captivated by the beauty of the region. It was an experience and side of India I had not seen before. It’s a place I would highly recommend to anyone, even if only for the landscapes.

After getting back to the hotel and showering up, dinner was getting close. We were pretty beat from the day so we decided to just grab dinner at the hotel. At this time in our trip, the Indian holiday, Diwali was in full swing. Diwali is the largest holiday in India, similar to our Christmas in terms of the scale, though this holiday is celebrated with hanging lights and lots of fireworks. LOTS of fireworks. While eating dinner in the fourth floor of the hotel dining room, right as we were about to dig into our food there was a huge explosion! It felt like the place was being bombed. Apparently, happy locals were launching mortar shell fireworks from the ground floor and they were exploding at nearly the same level as the dining room. With the room having its windows open, the concussions were felt in a very intense way. We decided it would be better to enjoy our meals in the fully enclosed main dining room.

When we finished up with dinner we went out to the balcony to watch the fireworks across the valley and enjoy an evening drink.

The next morning was our final day in Munnar and due to the travel time back to the airport, we wouldnt have much time to explore around Munnar, but there was a local museum that came recommended. So we decided to grab a quick breakfast at the hotel and then check out the local tea museum, which provided an overview of the plantations in Munnar. While at breakfast, Lucas had a great idea to take a time-lapse of the valley below with my camera and then using his editing tools he put it together. The video is posted below.

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So after breakfast we headed to the Tea museum. It was not the best museum I’ve been to but it provided some interesting information on how the area came to have such a tea-centric economy. And it was also extremely scenic.

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A local soccer field we passed on the way to the Tea Museum. Photo by Lucas.
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Outside of the Tea Museum

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We spent the morning walking through the tea museum and the surrounding grounds, picking up some fresh tea to bring back with us. However, our trip was cut short by the need to head back to the airport which would be around a 4 hour drive back.

We got back to Mumbai in the early evening and Lucas’s flight left around midnight. It was great exploring another part of India that was so unlike anything else I had seen in the country and it was especially great to do so with such a close friend. Cheers.

 

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  1. Great write up man, brought back a lot of memories, namely the yoga woman rolling around. I made the Kerala dishes for the family at Christmas and everyone loved it! Thanks for an amazing trip man!

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