A very unique way to see India
No teaching experience in India would have been complete without the opportunity to participate in a field trip. So when we heard that the 11th graders were heading off on their class trip to parts of Kerala we had been interested in seeing ourselves and doing so during the week before we were to depart for our own three week travel adventure, we expressed interest in joining the 11th graders and were invited to come along on their week-long class bus trip. Up to this point, Jenn had spent many, many hours on all of our travel arrangements to ensure that we didn't end up in places we didn't want to be, something that is easy to do in India. This time however, the itinerary and accommodations were set and we were going along for the ride. And oh what a ride it was. It was a memorable week for a diversity of reasons.
Loading the bus - some "intelligence' came in that some of the 17 year old students had plans for some extracurricular activities during the trip so our first official act to start our excursion was a luggage search of the bags as they were loaded into the bus. The kids were extremely tolerant of the intrusion into their privacy - I don't think this sort of thing was unusual.
To save on accommodation costs, the trip set out around 5:00pm and the plan was to drive through the night and save a night's room cost. Our first stop was at a small restaurant serving local specialties in an eating establishment where the focus was more on the food than the aesthetics, a recurring theme for this trip we soon discovered .
Said fish specialty, up close.
As the clock rattled well past midnight, I thought for a while the kids were going to listen to their very loud music and watch movies throughout the night. However, most had faded into dreamland before we began our pre-dawn ascent up a serpentine road of switchbacks and sharp corners that aggressively climbed the mountainside to Wayanad, a hill station town with a reputation for scenic beauty high in the Ghat Mountains. Sensing a change in the inclination of our vehicle, I awoke in time to watch our very skillful bus driver negotiate numerous 180 degree switchbacks in the face of numerous trucks and buses barreling down the mountain as well as random boulders here and there that had rolled onto the edge of the road at one time or another and were too much of a bother to move. Peering though the murky darkness and seeing only what the headlights were illuminating, there was the feeling of being on a Disney ride though much more thrilling given the lack of certainly that we would get off the ride intact. The Wayanad plateau was reached as the sun climbed into the sky and we arrived at our accommodations for that evening, the Holiday Home Cabins, for a chance to take a rest before the day's program began.
Travel weary already after a night on the bus, we arrive at Holiday Home
Adolescent boys share common characteristics across the globe
A common scene near our cottages
Some of the girlz
Our room was already occupied when we arrived - the guest was ushered out of our room by the boys with great commotion and bravery. No camera tricks here - it's as big, if not bigger, than it looks.
So after a brief nap, we gathered for the day's excursion - it said "Kuruva Island" on the itinerary. When I asked what was in store, i was told that it involved a boat trip out to some very nice islands where we could walk around and enjoy the scenery. I was told that we should bring a dry change of clothes in case we got wet along the way. I asked what the chances were that I would get wet and was told 99%. I thought Bala was kidding -she wasn't.
The ferry boats I imagined whisking us off to some exotic tropical island (in the mountains, no less) never materialized. I later learned that the boats were there only because the water depth of the river here was over our heads
Once shuttled across the river, we enjoyed a walk through some massive bamboo stands and paused for a group picture.
With our guide leading us, we quickly discovered where the 99% probability of getting wet came from. The "islands" we were visiting were visiting were actually swaths of forest fractured by a wide and rushing river. The main activity for our visit was to get everyone across the river, multiple times, alive. True adventure requires a real risk of danger or injury - this was a true adventure - we came close several times to losing some of our lighter kids.
Some of the other student groups visiting the islands preferred a less organized approach to the crossing.
The expression of Lena's face says it all. The big guy to the left is the tour guide - he seemed to have his doubts about this excursion
One of seven river crossings, each a little deeper and with a quicker current than the last.
Returning from the islands with all students accounted for, a minor miricle.
On the way to the island adventure, the bus had paused fro a few moments in response to a pair of women waving on the side of the road. The tour guy jumped off to chat with them for a minute or two and returned to announce that our lunch arrangements had been made. The house they stood before didn't look like a restaurant but they claimed they offered the only place for food between that point and the island adventure parking lot, a statement that proved to be, to no surprise, blatantly false. Regardless, a few picnic table, a make shift lean-to, and a backyard kitchen were all you needed to your own tropical diner so we took our places at the tables and enjoyed a lunch of assorted Keralite specialties served on banana leaves just as we had during Onam back in August.
Our tropical lunch spot
Mari hung with students most the week
Lunch ladies bring the buffet to us
Clean up is quick - no utencils and the banana leaf plates get rolled up and tossed
Part of the outdoor kitchen.
After lunch, we set off for our afternoon adventure, a jeep "safari" in the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in search of elephants and other assorted creatures included the resident but elusive tiger. The excursion also offered us another taste of Indian ecotourism, a quite new concept in India and one that is usually executed with an obvious tension between the eco-friendly theme of the park and the non eco-friendly nature of the Indian culture where trash and garbage are strewn across the inhabited landscape as if it belonged there.
Our skilled and incredibly durable bus driver. This guy was good though I was amazed at how many hours in a row he was able to drive. Each morning before setting off, he burned a stick of incense over the steering wheel as an offering and prayed for his safe driving, a practice that alternately comforted and unsettled me.
One of many views of tea plantations on the way to the wildlife park.
Millions of people in India make scratch out a living at these ubiquitous roadside stalls offering a few items to eat or use, often offering an a menu or slate of items for sale that is identical to the half dozen other stalls usually found within a stone's throw.
The entrance to the park - I wish I had videotaped the process of loading up the jeeps for our ride in. What a fiasco. When it comes to running logistics and crowd management, I am confident in my generalization that the Indians are among the worst. Again and again during our travels, we witnessed and experienced long lines, illogical crowd control schemes, traffic managers seemingly charged with the mission of complicating things to the greatest extent possible, and a general resistance to cuing but no hesitation for crowding.
We loaded into these small safari jeeps in search of wildlife
Though seemingly free of animal life save a few deer, the part was quite beautiful even from the back of a crammed in jeep on muddy, bumpy roads that seemed to go nowhere.
This was as close as we got to a tiger.
After the safari, we returned to our holiday home for a dinner, cooked in the owner's kitchen and delivered to us in pots with paper plates. Enough dried palm frond and coconut husks were rounded up for a campfire and some teenage hooting and hollering before bedtime.
We set out early for our day's journey to another well known hill station, Coorg, a place that when mentioned always evokes accolades for its beauty and fresh air demonstrating once again how relative perceptions of beauty. The drive to Coorg was in fact quite beatiful as the narrow pot-holed road wound through tea planations and numerous estates built by British authorities and merchants long ago. Much of this was lost to the kids on the bus whose attention was focused either on their electronic devices, the poor quality Indian movies being shown on the TV screen, or simply chatting and scheming among themselves. Our first stop of the day was another ecotourism experience at Pookot Lake which involved walking around the small lake on a path that had very little litter but was was otherwise nondescript. Some of the kids braved the masses of other school groups to rent little paddle boats but all in all, the experience was the equivalent of walking around a park pond except for the experience of being stopped repeatedly by groups of curious Indian students and adults to be interviewed and photographed.
More of Lena's new friends
We never got tired of seeing monkeys in the wild (as long as they kept their distance).
The highlight of the travel on this day was a stop at the Golden Buddist Temple on the way to Madikeri, an are that is home to over 15,000 Tibetan refugees and nearly 6000 monks and nuns. A truly remarkable complex, walking through the gates transports you to another place. The scale of the temple with it's rich artistry and golden shine was powerful and somewhat humbling.
We arrived at the hotel in Coorg with hope that our accommodations would feel less like a camping experience, and they were... camping would have been far more enjoyable. The Fortview hotel was the kind of place Jenn spent hours on the computer trying to avoid. A rundown, dirty, deplorable place. The travel guide had never been there - he bit the false advertising hook line and sinker. I was able to kill two roaches without Jenn and the girls seeing them. Even in the tropics, being at higher elevations in December is cool but there was no heat at the Fortview, which did have a view across the cluttered roof of the neighboring building of a plot of land on a nearby hill where a fort once stood but no longer exists.
It might have read Bates Hotel...
Lena trying to warm up. When I slid between the sheets of my bed, I discovered the need to pick the hairs out from the sheets from the previous occupant (or occupants?).
The bucket on the right was came out when we opened the hot water tap.
After checking in, we walked around the corner and ate in one of the ubiquitous hole in the wall little restaurants, called hotels, that care nothing whatsoever about aesthetics or perhaps slightly more about cleanliness. Our got to choose between chicken curry and chicken birianyi (chciken and rice), a choice that became quite familiar during the trip. We discovered later that the tour guide allotted 600 rupees per day for food per person and this is what it came to.
Jenn and Lena look for something other than chicken curry next store.
It was a long night at the Fort View - the kids were up late and the teachers seemed to have trouble persuading them to settle down and turn down their music. At this point in the trip, some underlying tension was starting to build between Jenn and I as well as the students and the lead chaperone. For the kids, they were very upset with both the quality of accommodations and food - remember that students at Trivandrum International School mostly come from the wealthiest of families in the area and are accustomed to such conditions. For Jenn and I, we were starting to grow frustrated with the manner in which the trip was managed. Students were given very little information about what was going on and meeting times were never enforced meaning we were always behind schedule. Nothing unusual about this in India - time is a very fluid thing here, but the students were allowed to consistently late and then were criticized for it. Arcane rule such as boys adn girls no being able to sit or walk together, something they due back at school all the time, were enforced. At one point, the kids were playing the music so loud on the bus that it was physically hurting our ears - when I asked the kids to turn it down a little, I was told by the head teacher that we were guests on the student's trip and if they wanted to play their music loudly they should be able to. Interestingly, once I spoke to the kids about it, they were very responsive and apologized.
The next day started with a short trip from Coorg to a nearby waterfall. The road to it was too narrow and steep for the bus, so we had to hike down (and back up) about a mile in the early morning mist. For fun, we counted the number of busted single sandals lining the sides of the road - the number was well over 150.
Once again, mobbed like rock stars by an Indian school group wanting to be in a picture with Jenn and the girls.
Our next destination was Mysore, seat of former king and home to one of the best preserved palaces in the country. Fortunately, the hotel was better than the last night's but the appearance of a roach the size of a stick of gum walking on the wall right over one of the kid's beds soured the experience. Lunch that afternoon took us to the nadir of dining - we were herded into the equivalent of a giant sheltered feed lot where we were crammed into lightly packed tables, given the curry/biriyani chose, and had it delivered while another group awaited our seats outside the door to our section of the feeding grounds. The next group of students moved in on our table before we had even finished eating. It was a new low for the tour guide - the kids were getting fed up.
The sightseeing for the day included a trip to the Mysore palace (no photos allowed) and an evening at the Mysore gardens. .
The Mysore palace
The Mysore palace at night - it is illuminated for 30 minutes on Saturday nights - fortunately, our timing was right.
The gardens were attractive but hardly lived up to their hype, or maybe we were just spoiled. The most interesting event of the evening was a meeting of one of the students representing the whole group with the lead teacher to express the group's unhappiness about both the accommodations and the food. The meeting took place on the lawn in the garden for half an hour and when it was done, a deal was struck. The tour guide would turn over to the students all of the money allotted for meals and let the students organize the meals for the group for the rest of the trip.
Some people watching at the Mysore gardens.
Notice how someone thought it a good idea to erect an ugly metal lighting structure in the middle of the optimum view of the gardens from the hillside viewing area.
Once the meal deal was struck, we had one more tour guide arranged meal to get through and this one involved sitting around in a circle on plastic lawn chairs at some local community center eating either chiken curry or chicken birianyi.
The next morning, we boarded the bus to a local multistar hotel and enjoyed a full buffet of outstanding food for a few about a dollar more than we would have spent at one of the tour director's hotels. The kids were completely impressive in their ability to locate and organize all of the meals for the remainder of the trip. They found western style buffet restaurants, hotel buffets, pizza parlors, and, of course, one McDonald's stop. They (and I should note that it was only the boys - the girls in this group were a fairly passive bunch but I wouldn't say that's the rule) handled everything from reservations to collecting the extra money. Just like the adults they were on their way to becoming, they were hard bargainers - I watched them negotiate with hotel managers for better deals like pros. I wondered how my American students would have handled this situation.
We visited a large temple on top of a hill outside Mysore as well as the Mysore Zoo during th remainder of the day
Offerings for sale
A Dravidian style temple
One of the cows free to go where it like finds a tasty snack on the grill of a pilgrimage bus.
The Mysore Zoo was surprisingly clean and well kept with a great variety of animals
The body of this hairless chimp was startling in its humaness
Even if you are attacked and mauled by a tiger, you will be arrested...
The day ended not with chicken curry or birianyi but instead with the best pizza we'd tasted since leaving the US.
After our second night in Mysore, we were off to the two spots most anticipated by the kids - a day at the Wonder-la amusement and water park and shopping in Bangalore. The drive to Wonder-la took a coupe of hours but when we arrived, it was as if by some kind of Star Trek like transporter we were suddenly no longer in India but instead in Orlando. This theme park was ultra-modern, clean, well maintained, and offered some rides and attractions I hadn't seen anywhere in the US. Clearly, some company has invested a lot of rupees to create an experience found previously only in the West. The kids had a great day that finished, of course, at McDonalds.
One last night on the road found us in Bangalore and one last chance to experience budget accommodations. While the hotel wasn't the worst of the lot that we had stayed in, the neighborhood in which it was located surely took the prize. We seemed to be settled in a part of Bangalore where used parts and assorted junk related to transportation could be had, in case it was not apparent from the photos
Lena takes in the view from our hotel room.
After checking out for the last time, the bus pulled as close to the shopping area as it was allowed and the kids got the chance to do what kids with money everywhere like to do - go shopping!
The mall we visited had an international theme
Count it as progress - Jenn saw this sign attempting to educate patrons how to properly use and not use the facilities - finding a tolerable functional bathroom in India can often be an ordeal.
Security was tight.
After the shopping trip, it was time for us to say farewell as the bus departed for the overnight drive back to Trivandrum and we headed to a hotel near the airport to catch a flight the next morning to Udaipur. Since we were in the center of Bangalore, we asked the driver to drop us off in front of a big hotel so that we could catch a cab. That got translated into "drop us off at a hotel" so the bus drove fro about 20 minutes in the opposite direction from the airport before pulling up in front of a small hotel in the edge of the city with no cabs in sight. Once that was sorted out, we had to wait 20 minutes while a radioed cab arrived to pick us up off the side of the road and bring us back across the city to our booked hotel. When we finally arrived at the hotel Jenn had booked, we wanted to cry we were so happy - it was nearly new and sparkling clean, great service, comfortable beds, excellent restaurant, and quiet. Completely travel-weary from our week on the road in the bus, we were ready to venture out on our own again. Despite the very trying logistics of the trip and the tension created by a chaperoning style we didn't connect with, it was a nice opportunity to interact with the Indian students off campus and out of the school environment. Once the trip was over, I could say I'm glad that we did it.