A Travellerspoint blog

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Exploring Old Delhi

A memorable foray into chaos

Nearly a week has passed since we said our good-byes and departed for India and I can say in the most positive way possible that it feels like a month. We have seen and done so much in the short time since our arrival here that it is difficult to know where to begin. The last few days have been spent at the very comfortable Park Hotel near Connaught Circle in New Delhi while I attended sessions at the US-India Educational Foundation complex as part of my orientation. In addition to the seven of us who are part of the teacher exchange, there were about 30 Fulbright Student Scholars, mostly recent college grads who are fanning out across India conducting research in a variety of subjects and topics. I was not alone among the teachers in feeling a little bit old among such a youthful bunch but none of us were ready to trade places with any of them.

Because a few days have passed since we’ve had a chance to post, I’m not quite sure where to begin. In a few hours from now, we’ll be checking out of the hotel for the start of our four day journey to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and on to Jaipur before returning to New Delhi in order to catch our flight to Trivandrum. The program orientation program wrapped up yesterday at lunch so we used the afternoon to visit Old Delhi (as opposed to New Delhi, the British built capital where we have been spending most of our time). The primary focus for the trip was a visit to a mosque and to the Red Fort, but I can’t think of a more applicable application of the saying “it’s not the destination but he journey that counts”. Kuldeep, our very cool and reliable driver, let us off outside of the Old Delhi area and hooked us up with a couple of cycle rickshaw drivers to move us around. We got a few pictures with a snake-charmer and his cobras out before boarding of bicycle chariots and entered the fray. I had read about how busy and chaotic the streets of Delhi could be but I never could have imagined the crush of humanity and its vehicles that completely filled the streets and flowed ever so slowly in what appeared at first to be a chaotic frenzy.

Our drivers were pros and dodged and weaved with the best of them. Our first stop was the Jama Masjid mosque which required a walk through a busy market in our approach to the mosque complex. I confess to having some discomfort visiting as a tourist places being actively being used by people for religious ritual but aside from the casual stares that we receive everywhere we go, no one overtly seemed to mind.
Entering the Jama Masjid mosque

Entering the Jama Masjid mosque


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The solution for the underdressed

The solution for the underdressed


Muslims in prayer

Muslims in prayer


One of our bicycle rickshaw drivers - nice guy!

One of our bicycle rickshaw drivers - nice guy!


Dosing on the cool marble

Dosing on the cool marble


Cool dudes hanging at the mosque

Cool dudes hanging at the mosque

Our next stop was the Red Fort, a huge complex with a rich history that I’m not going to get into here. Compared to other places we had see in Delhi, I found it to be a bit underwhelming – the heat, humidity and a lack of water with us didn’t enhance the experience.
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Before returning to Kuldeep’s car, we overruled the girls’ protests and forged on ahead to the spice market where we encountered traffic that defies description. While a picture is worth a thousands words, nothing beats video - ride along with us during a relatively calm stretch of the road!

Scenes from Old Delhi

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Shopping for nuts and spices

Shopping for nuts and spices


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No trucks allowed

No trucks allowed


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Having had a taste of Old Delhi, we were ready to move on to Agra.

Posted by SteveJenn 09:24 Comments (0)

At home in Trivandrum, at last...

but experiencing a few technical delays...

We have finally arrived in Trivandrum in the southern Indian state of Kerela, the city we will be calling home until late January. We have moved into our apartment in the girls hostel (dorm) here at the school and Jenn is busy at work transforming what is a fairly sterile dorm space into a cozy little home for us - I'm sure she is up to the challenge. The school is as beautiful as it appeared to be on line but it is a little strange in that no one is here except a couple of bored-looking security guards. The students are off from school this week because today is the big holiday for Kerela called Onam, so we pretty much have the place to ourselves. The Onam holiday has a lot of similarities with our Thanksgiving in that families gather for the special meal though the origin story of this holiday is slightly different (for more on King Mahabali, go to http://www.onamfestival.org/king-mahabali-onam.html) It includes a special meal served on banana leaves that involved a couple of dozen different types of vegetarian foods with a wide range of tastes and flavors. The meal is eaten with fingers without utensils (right hand only) and was quite a spectacle in it's presentation as a whole team of waiters added individual items to our leaves. A very memorable and very filling feast.
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We'd love to show some pictures our very memorable trek through Agra and Jaipur, but we are experiencing some technical limitations at the moment. For now, I can only upload photos one at a time and each takes a while. Because the school is on vacation, the person to help us get an internet connection up and running in our apartment is not around. Therefore, we are currently limited to using the computers in the student lounge here in the dorm which don't have the software needed upload batches of photos to the web site (and we have a lot to share - some amazing stuff!). As is standard with school computers, they are locked down pretty tightly so I can't download the needed software (I can't even get to Facebook). So, pictures and stories of our adventure in Rajistan and Agra will need to wait until we are fully online again.

The rest of the week ahed is refreshingly more easy-paced than the last one. Tomorrow (Tuesday) evening, we're going back into town for more Onam festivites. They hang thousands of lights in the trees along the streets and there are numerous cultural performances going on all week. We may take a trip to one of the nearby beaches or a temple or two on Wednesday. On Thursday, the government offices open again after the three day Onam legal holiday, so Jenn and I can register with the Office of Foreign Registration among other administrative chores. On Friday, we're trying to organize a trip about 3 hours north to watch some of the Kerelite snake boat races. I'd post a picture of one of these boats if I could but if you are interested in what a snake boat is, just Google "kerela snake boat race" images and you'll see what we're after.

I'm heading for bed to sleep for a while before our 3:45 am wake up call. Our bedroom is just up the hill from a very loud speaker on the roof of a nearby mosque. The Muslims are currently in the middle of their month long Ramadan observation and for some reason, the first call to prayer was at quarter to four this morning. I'm not sure why it's so early - I thought it was supposed to be at dawn, but we'll be ready with earplugs tonight. We have better get used to it - still two more weeks left to Ramadan...

Happy Onam!
Steve

Posted by SteveJenn 08:46 Comments (1)

Onam Festivities

I’m finally starting to understand the timing of the Onam holidays. The Onam festival is ten days long with a gradual build up to the big meal on day 10. During the build up, there are various traditional rituals including the construction of colorful mandala-like floral designs made from a mosaic of different colored flower petals. There was one on the floor of the main school building and we saw others while we were about in Trivandrum. I had been thinking that the last day of Onam was all there was to the holiday but I could not have been more worng. Last evening, Sankar, who is the director of transportation at the school and our designated shepherd this week, brought us downtown to walk with the many thousands of others for viewing the explosion of colorful lights hanging from trees and shining on buildings. Music and dance performances were happening along with amusement rides, craft vendors, and all of the other trappings one would expect to encounter in a giant street carnival.
snack wagon

snack wagon

Steve at spicy snackstand

Steve at spicy snackstand


These colorful snack wagons doled out a steamed stir-fry of spicy chick peas and chopped veggies that I had to try. After a few mouthfulls, I noticed the guy to the left shaking his finger and a small pool of blood on the cutting board he was using to chop the veggies. No problem though - he simply wiped the board clean with his apron, wrapped the sliced finger in a rag, and got back to work. Glad I got my hepatitis shots!

Elena shopping

Elena shopping

Family photo

Family photo

Onam lights and fountains

Onam lights and fountains

Here's some video from the festivities:

After walking around for a while and taking in the scene, we headed back to school but not before making a sort detour to Sankar's house which was on the way home in order to drop him off as well as to meet his new 3-month old son. We were invited into his home where he lives with his wife, child, and his parents, a home that had been in the family for five generations. By inviting us in for tea, he gave us the opportunity to catch a glimpse of his real life, the one behind his employment life at school. Through the small, non-descript chained gate we stepped into an atmosphere inside was so different from the world outside. When a family lives continuously in a place for a century and a half, they leave their legacy in the atmosphere, the décor, and the items that adorn the place. They have a shrine near the front of the house where Sankar or his father perform the pujas (rituals) in the morning and evening. Though none of his family spoke English, we felt very welcome and were completely taken with the star of the show, his little baby boy whose Malayali name escapes me now (as do most Malayali words). Decorated in bangles, earrings, and decorative smudges, he was a real cutie. As spectacular as the lights were, I’ll remember our visit to Sankar’s house as the highlight of the evening.

Sankar's home

Sankar's home

Sankar wife and baby

Sankar wife and baby

Shankar's baby

Shankar's baby

Jenn and baby

Jenn and baby

Before the visit to the carnival, we viewed an interesting warm-up event. We can’t always predict what we’ll encounter along the road so the crowd of people gathered around a rather chaotic scene involving a swinging basket and wild splashes of golden-colored spray demanded an investigation. What we witnessed was a very rowdy game played only during Onam that reminded us a lot of Mexican piñata smashing. Tied inside a bamboo crafted triangular open box was a sack containing some money. This box hung on a rope that was suspended by a pulley and dangled and swung back and forth over the head of the contestant who was armed with a long bamboo stick for wacking open the goodie bag. The departure from the Mexican form of the game comes from the half dozen or so young men who continuously whip cups of tumeric stained, yellow water into the face of the swinger of the stick. You have to see it to truly appreciate it:

The water tossers took their job of protecting the money sack very seriously – no one broke the bag open while we were watching. The event was quite a spectacle – everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Onam game 1

Onam game 1

village girls

village girls

Onam game 2

Onam game 2

Village kids

Village kids

Onam game 3

Onam game 3

No shorts in Kerela - only dhotis

No shorts in Kerela - only dhotis

Posted by SteveJenn 10:04 Comments (0)

A Day At The Snake Boat Races

The ultimate canoe race

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I've been talking a lot recently about the Onam festival here in Kerela and no account of this festival is complete without some mention of the famous snakeboat races that only happen during this time of year, some in conjunction with the holiday. Last Friday, we hired a car for the day and drove a couple of hours north to the small town of Aranmula where the end of the Onam festival is celebrated with a big snakeboat regatta. So what is a snake boat, or better yet, why are there snakeboats? The pictures will take care of the what, but as for the why, a quick history lesson is needed. I'm going to be lazy here and just clip a summary from an Indian web site http://goindia.about.com/od/whattosee/p/snake-boat-race.htm:

What's a Snake Boat:
Fortunately there's no need for concern, as snake boats get their name from their shape rather than anything to do with live snakes! A snake boat (or chundan vallam) is actually a long traditional canoe style boat used by the people of the Kuttanadu region, in south India's state of Kerala. Typical snake boats are 100 to 120 feet long, and hold around 100 rowers. Each of the villages in the region has its own snake boat, which they take great pride in. Every year the villagers get together and race the boats along the lakes and rivers.
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What's the History Behind the Snake Boat Races:
The battling snake boats of Kerala have over 400 years of history associated with them. Their story can be traced back to the kings of Alleppey (Alappuzha) and the surrounding areas, who used to fight with each other in boats along the canals. One king, who suffered heavy losses, got boat architects to build him a better vessel and the snake boat was born, with much success. An opposing king sent a spy to learn the secret of how to make theses boats but was unsuccessful as the subtleties of the design are very hard to pick up. These days boat races are held with much excitement during various festivals.

So there's the background. When we arrived in Aranmula, we were a couple of hours early (or so we thought), so we had our driver drop us off at the big Hindu temple in Aranmula, the Parthasuraty Temple, because the guide book said to check it out. There were a lot of people in town for the races so it was more crowded than normal. The path to the temple was lined with the kind of peddlers one might expect to find at any festival event with a lot of tourists. Along the way, we also crossed a line-up of beggars with a wide range physical afflictions and deformities that could only be described as biblical. The memory of one particular man haunts me still - he was laying in rags on a piece of cardboard with no legs and deformed arms and he had somehow covered himself in ashes. There were others as downcast and the experience left Mari a little shaken (you can see the video from the temple steps that she's upset). I took one picture of a couple of guys that I later gave some money to but I couldn't bring myself to take pictures of the others - it seemed a violation of what little dignity they had.
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Once we reached the temple and were about to climb the stairs, a raucous noise emerged from the doorway and a parade of shirtless, singing, paddle-carrying men paraded down the steps having just completed their pre-race visit to the temple. Here they are:

When we made it inside, there was another team, or perhaps the other half of the first group, heartily singing their heavily rhythmic song around some temple artifacts. Take a listen:

It was easy to imagine the song being used to keep time among a boatload of 100+ paddlers striving to keep in sync.
Parthasuraty temple

Parthasuraty temple

Rowers at temple

Rowers at temple

Rowers singing at temple

Rowers singing at temple

The coach?

The coach?

Temple ladies

Temple ladies

View of Aranmula from temple steps

View of Aranmula from temple steps

We walked around the temple grounds and experienced some great people watching, though we were probably being watched by the others even more. For such a famous and grand event, a could count two hands the number of non-Indians we saw among the many thousands of people. Still, we feel quite comfortable - some people might take a prolonged look our way but otherwise go about their business as normal. All in all, we've been very comfortable in this regard since we arrived.
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Shopping for a good Ganesh

Shopping for a good Ganesh

We got conflicting info on the start times for the race. We had purchased relatively expensive tickets for the event (this was our one chance) for reserved places so we had a very tasty lunch (for about $8.00) and headed to the reserved viewing area for the race. We had been told that the races began at 1:00 and by another person at 3:00 pm and discovered that there was truth to both times. While the actual event started at 3:00, we needed to be there by 1:00 to get a seats in the reserved section. When we arrived at 2:00, the place was packed and standing room only. Fortunately, we have a native New Yorker travelling with us who started asking questions and pleading our case to police and apparent big shots and before long, we had places in the VIP section of the tent a few rows behind the dignitaries and event sponsors. It was one of those cases, I think, where being non-Indian worked in our favor - I'm not sure a local family could have pulled it off.

These are all thumbnails from the races - click on the picture for a bigger view

A day at the snake boat races

A day at the snake boat races

Each boat carries up to 130 rowers

Each boat carries up to 130 rowers

Front end of boats

Front end of boats

It's good to be the lead dog

It's good to be the lead dog

Row, row, row your boat

Row, row, row your boat

Riding low in the water

Riding low in the water

Plotting a strategy

Plotting a strategy

Steering the boat

Steering the boat

Some paddle, some chant

Some paddle, some chant

There were some slow parts

There were some slow parts

Weekend warriors

Weekend warriors

The contestants en mass

The contestants en mass

Another close finish

Another close finish

Close race

Close race

A boat about to capsize

A boat about to capsize

Men overboard

Men overboard

As for the boats themselves, the photos approach doing them justice. They were truly impressive in the size and elegance and in the coordination and spirit of the paddlers themselves. This was a big event in Kerela - it was televised live across the state and with elections coming up, not politician missed the chance to get a little face time in from of the microphone. In fact, the boats paraded by in groups of three then turned upriver and paddled until they were out of sight. We were all left listening to an unending stream of speeches in Malayalm that no one was listening to for about an hour and a half before the boats reapppeared plowing ahead in full stride to the finsish line right in front of us. They came down the river in heats of three boats each, the winner being towed back upstream for the next round. Here are scenes from both the parade and a couple of the heats:

We stayed for a number of heats before feeling satisfied that we experienced what we had come for. With the conclusion of the race, Onam 2010 was all but over and we feel fortunate to have been in Kerela at this time to experience it.

A Kerela postcard

A Kerela postcard

Posted by SteveJenn 10:36 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Christian Church in Kerela

Doubting Thomas makes his mark

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The southern Indian state of Kerela is unique for a number of reasons, most of which will be addressed in future entries. One of these unique aspects is the sizable Christian population that lives here, members of numerous churches many of which have some connection to the apostle Thomas (the doubting one) who landed in India in 53 AD and established a number of early Christian churches. One in five Kerelites is a Christian, an unexpected number considering the better known Hindu majority and large Muslim populations - most people don't associate India with Christianity. There's a lot to the history of the Christian church here and it's best to leave to leave an accurate account of this legacy to those who know - a nice summary can be found at http://www.ananthapuri.com/kerala-history.asp?page=christian.

Because of the traffic after the snake boat races, so our driver suggested that we take a longer route home that would avoid the backup. In doing so, we were able to get off the main highways a bit and see a little more of how people were living. Our route home took us through small towns and villages and we were very surprised by the number of Christian churches that were passed along the way. These churches are quite ornate with very stylish, three tier facades that are quite ornate. On some stretches of road, there might have been one every quarter mile and some of them were immense, ornate buildings that sometimes dwarfed the neighboring structures. We asked the driver to stop at one of them along the way and Jenn and I quietly slid in the back (Jenn on the right, the women's side and me on the left while a lineup of seven women chanted in Malayalam in response to prompts from an alter boy (or maybe her was a junior priest) up front. After removing our shoes, we stood near the back but were quickly noticed by everyone in the near empty, cavernous church - all of the folding chairs were neatly stacked in the back of the sanctuary. A plainly dressed man who apparently had some influence in controlling the church space smiled at us, repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to tell me something, and moved forward to the front to whisper something in the ear of the lead alter boy who glanced at us over his shoulder, grabbed a long staff with a wick for lighting candles, and then disappeared behind the immense red curtains that obscured our view of the front of the church. A minute later, the curtain was drawn open and a large, ornate alter appeared fully illuminated by candles freshly lit for our viewing. The ladies continued to sing, slightly distracted by our unusual presence, and soon after, a fully robed priest entered the sanctuary and took over for the alter boy in leading the vespers. It was Friday night, all proceedings were happening in Malayalam, and despite my best efforts with the friendly custodian, no one was available to clarify in English just what was going on. Other churches that we passed along the way seemed full of people and were very active as if Friday night were an important evening for worship. However, in the church that we stopped by, despite its rather new construction, a somewhat crowded cemetery, and massive three tiered edifice typical of this style of church, was occupied only by a priest, an alter boy, a friendly custodian, seven chanting faithful, and a couple of curious foreigners trying to understand what we experiencing.

Here are a few photos - I wanted very much to capture the singing church ladies, but our presence alone seemed such a distraction - aiming a camera their way would have exacerbated our intrusion.

One of many Syrian Christian Churches in Kerela

One of many Syrian Christian Churches in Kerela

Alter at church

Alter at church

View out back of church

View out back of church

View from the front steps

View from the front steps

Cross in front of church

Cross in front of church

Church facade

Church facade

Posted by SteveJenn 11:07 Comments (1)

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