A Travellerspoint blog

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Christmas in Goa

Kicking back at the beach for the holidays

After our time in the Thar desert, we took a four hour train out of Jodhpur to Jaipur for the simple purpose of catching a cheaper flight to Goa. We couldn’t get out of either of these cities fast enough given the choking pollution and grime that one is continuously forced to breath. In some places in India, the diesel auto rickshaws have been banned but not in Rajastan and the difference is remarkable.

Things changed immediately upon arrival in Goa. Much further south and on the coast, the chill we were experiencing in Rajastan was absent and we found it great to be back in the rich greenness of a more tropical setting. For those not familiar with Goa, a quick history lesson. Goa came under control of Portugal in 1510 when Afonso de Albuquerque captured the fort at Panjim and established the colony as Portugal's first foothold in Asia. Goa remained under Portuguese control for 451 years until 1961, 14 years after India gained independence from the English. Four and a half centuries is a long time and the influence of the Portuguese both in terms of genetics and culture is clearly evident no matter where you go in Goa. Today, 30% of the Goa population is Roman Catholic and from our observations at the Christmas service, there was abundant mixing of Goan and Portuguese genes over the past centuries.
Candy canes at the airport - a good sign!

Because of changes to our travel plans, we had to stay one forgettable night in the Goan capital of Panjim. This city became the capital of Goa only after a combination of the the plague and the silting up of the harbor of Old Goa made the former capital obsolete. Still, it was close enough to Old Goa to offer a short visit to the old capital, a city that once was home to several thousand people but now is merely a ghost town. However the biggest ghosts are impressive - a number of old massive cream colored cathedrals, churches, and convents remain providing one's imagination the seeds necessary to invision the splendor of what was once a spectacular city.large_DSCN5209.jpg
Old Goa Church
Old Goa Church interior
Jenn gives a lesson on church architecture
Another Goan Church
The Governor's gate, once the entrance to a bustling city, now a gateway to a ghost town.
Mari down by the river at sunset - where did our little girl go?

After our night in Panjim, we taxied out to our primary desintation, Resort Terra Paraiso, in the coastal town of Calingute in North Goa. Jenn picked a winner with this place, a small but clean, charming, well run resort situated far enough away from the traffic of the main road paralleling the beach and only a five minute walk to the beach itself. It was so very nice to unpack the suitcases for five days. The resort attracted a potpourri of guests including Indians, Russians, Europeans, and Scandinavians, and others.
Santa greeted us at the door
Prepping for Christmas
Moon over Terra Paraiso

Arriving a couple of days before Christmas, we observed the slow but steady process of Christmas decorating leading up to a huge Christmas dinner and party on Christmas Day. Being so close to the beach, we spent a lot of time there. Goa came into its own in the 1960's as a vacation destination discovered by Western hippies in India for a variety of reasons consistent with that era in history. The miles and miles of sandy beaches and the laid back attitude drew increasingly larger crowds and a corresponding growth in the resort industry. A characteristic feature of the Goan beaches is the presence of hundreds of "beach shacks", small restaurants that serve food and drinks to the customers using their collection of umbrella covered beach chairs offered for free.
Beach shacks
It's really nice arrangement except for one thing - the unending stream of touts approaching us every 30 seconds selling something. It's a true test of patience - I discovered the best way to cope was to pretend I was asleep. For someone like Jenn trying to relax and read a book, it as not unlike the displeasure generated by mosquitoes at a campfire - it was just an unending chain of disturbances one after the other. Still, we were at the beach in beautiful warm December weather so it wasn't all that bad! Occasionally, someone would appear with something unique - the girls had some personalized bracelets made by a young girl who was about their age.
Fruit sellers take a break
Lena mermaid and friends
Steve and Mari take a walk
A contrast in cultures - a Muslim woman dressed in full burka enjoys the beach with her family while a European wearing considerably less saunters by
On a beach that stretched for a couple of miles, Indian vacationers crowd together in one small section - the more, the merrier...

One special event for both girls was the opportunity to Skype with their classmates back in Amesbury, the first time they have actually seen their classes due to our August departure. There was little doubt they'll slide back in quickly.
A hello from across the world.

As Christmas approached, Jenn asked Elena what she wanted and she replied "a Christmas tree". So Jenn hired a taxi and traveled into the town to rustle up a small tree from a nursery, some lights, and some ornaments and we had ourselves a beautiful tree Charlie Brown would have been proud of.
Decorating our tree

As one would expect in any beach resort area, there was a full slate of water sports offered at the beach so during the day on Christmas Eve, we negotiated a family rate for some para-sailing and gathered a different perspective on of the Goan coastline attached between a parachute and speed boat tow line.
On the parasailing boat
Lena in the air
Mari's turn

After a Christmas Eve dinner in town and a little shopping, we were set to attend the midnight mass. However, upon arriving an hour early to get a good seat, we learned from the security guard that the service was NOT in English, contrary to what we had been previously told, and that is would end around 2:00 am. The English service was the next morning at 10:30 am, so were were happy to adjust our schedule.
Christmas Day service at a Catholic church
Before leaving the church at the end of the service, each person stopped at the nativity to kiss the baby Jesus, who appears to have been a rather big baby...
Not an unusual scene in India - on the church steps on Christmas Day, beggars compete with boys handing out Dominos Pizza flyers for the attention of the departing attendees.

On Christmas morning the girls discovered that Santa had managed to locate them and arranged for a pedicure/manicure at the resort spa. The day was very relaxing - back to the beach and hanging out. The big event was the evening Christmas dinner celebration with a massive buffet dinner, live music, and lots of dancing 20 feet from the front door of our room.
Prepping for the big evening
Ejoying Christmas dinner
Rajastani fire dancer
An appearance from Santa
We enjoyed the festivities for a while but after the volume started getting to us, we opted out in favor of a visit to the massive Saturday night bazaar that happens once a week where vendors selling anything and everything a tourist could possibly want. Jenn acquired a bunch of the beautiful illuminated folding paper stars that we've seen decorating Christian homes in Kerala and Goa throughout the Christmas season.
Shopping for stars
Nice Lena
Naughty Lena

The rest of our time was more hanging at the beach and a lot of gift shopping. Our time here was every bit as relaxing and enjoyable as we imagined it would be, a wonderful break in the long and sometimes arduous trek cross various parts of the North of India. Goa we liked very much.

Posted by SteveJenn 05:50 Comments (1)

Communists in Control

Trying to untangle the complexities of the Kerala political and economic puzzle

(Note - this entry was written back in November with thoughts that I'd figure things out more the longer I was here but that ended up not being the case...)

India proudly wears its title as the the largest democracy in the world. I might be wrong, but I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of that fact. The state of Kerala has three branches - a democratically elected parliament for the legislative branch, a governor and deputy governor heads the executive branch, and a high court that serves as the judiciary branch. When I first learned that we were coming to Kerala, I was surprised to discover that the political party in power in this state was the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a coalition party led by the Communist Party of India - Marxist. This caught me off guard - in my formative years as a youth during the dark days of the cold war, I came to associate communism with one-party totalitarian states such as the USSR and East Germany. I'm not old enough to have experienced the McCarthy Era, but I've been around long enough to know that many Americans associate communism with much that is evil in the world. So it struck me odd that here in the world's largest largest democracy, one of the more advanced states in the country has been controlled by the Marxists on and off for much of the last 50 years.

We had dinner last night with the family of a colleague and I used the opportunity to get some answers to my questions about the sickle and hammer party. Why Kerala? Bengal is the only other Indian state where the Communist Party is influential. It seems to go back to the time of British rule where a few landlords controlled most of the land while most people were poor farmers of laborers. One can imagine the appeal of the communist message to the lowly and oppressed and during the early days of independence, the party gradually rose in popularity. For Americans accustomed to a two political system, it's difficult to imagine a country with 100's of political parties, many small offshoots of larger parties where a particular politician split away and started his own party. The LDF is actually a group of parties led by the Marxists - some people run as independents and when elected, are in a position to bargain with the larger coalitions for a few favors in return for their vote. Indian politics seems to be all about getting elected, making deals to solidify your position, and then do little until the next election to so no one can hold it against you.

The recent elections were strictly local elections but were seen as a political indicator of what might be in store in the next legislative elections. The communists lost a little ground in the local elections but remain the party in power at the state and many local areas. So how do the Communist Party policies differ from other parties? Apparently not very much at all distinguishes LDF from the Unified Democratic Front (UDF) which is the other main party here. As it was explained to me, the Communists are in power now but only by a slim margin. Over the years, they have held or lost a slim majority at the state level. I was told that their leaders have become as wealthy and corrupt as the other politicians - there's not much to distinguish them. The general opinion of politicians here is nearly universally negative. Because the parties in power are coalitions and are fearful of taking any actions that might alienate a member or be controversial one way or the other, very little actually gets done. People become fed up with the status quo after five years and sometimes put the opposition into the slim majority only to repeat the cycle all over again. Politics here is all about payoffs and political favors - if you are in business here and a candidate comes looking for a campaign contribution, you better think long and hard about refusing because if that person wins, the permits you might need may not get processed or there may suddenly be complaints from neighbors about noise from your business that leads to fines or other hassles. I hear about this stuff time and time again - little gets done in India without someone getting paid off to make it happen. It's just the way it is.
Labor unions in Kerala, empowered by years of communist control, are suffocatingly strong - little can be done without their consent and they can shut down the state (and do several times a year during work stoppages called harthals) in response to some action they disapprove of.

Despite all of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the politicians, over 70% of the voters came out to vote and degree and extent of the campaigning was simply amazing. No vertical surface anywhere was without a campaign poster.

The best way to prevent an opponent from posting next to you is to completely wallpaper the surface with your own posters.
The strategy works for light poles as well.
One of a fleet of noisy campaign vehicles
Not a lot of originality in the poster design, but at least they are smiling.
Notice how each candidate has a unique symbol to represent their party or the candidate themselves. This symbol appears on the ballot as well and helps less literate voters find their favorite candidates. The woman on the left seems to belong to the Microwave Oven Party. The woman on the right is taking a different approach - she's going hypnotize voters into siding with her.
Graffiti artists are in high demand during campaign season.

When all of the stone walls, telephone poles, and sides of buildings were completely covered, candidates (or rather their legions of volunteers - there are a lot of people around with not much to do) strung very long ropes along the roadsides and attached posters to them hanging like shirts - sometimes walls of this political laundry are built by stacking ropes 3 or 4 high aside or over the roads.

In addition to the massive amounts of visual clutter created during the campaigns, many campaigns also send out small trucks with massive speakers tied to the back that blast out at ear-shuttering volume an unless flow of campaign chatter, party themes songs, and sometimes, the candidate will even be on the back waving. From the school's location here on the top of a hill, we heard near continuous assaults on the human ear in the villages nearby in the closing days of the campaigns. Just for kicks, I decided to go out and sit near the front gates of the school to get a good look at the setups. I have some video of one of these trucks that passed me three times while I sat out there. I felt like an old friend by the time he passed by for the last time.

Notice the woman carrying the sticks on her head as the truck passes - here's a better view of her.
After I took her photo, she wanted money and was really pissed at me because I didn't have my wallet with me.
While all of this is going on, a different citizen of our neighborhood was gathering water the way many people do = from the well.
Here's another mobile source of political noise on the main highway

So Kerala is rather unique in it's repeated support of a democratically elected communist party. It's also unique in a couple of other regards.
Much economic and political analysis has been conducted on the reasons for some of Kerala's unexpected advances in the well being of its citizens. Kerala is distinguished from many other developing nations/states across the globe by a number of very positive attributes. The literacy rate here demand attention - in India, the literacy rate stands at 64.8% (75.2% for males and 53.6% for females) while in Kerala, the rate is the highest in the country at 90.8% (94.2% for men and 87.7% for women). The health and life span of the people in Kerala are en par with developed countries and in fact, a significant medical tourism industry brings many people from developed countries here for cheaper medical services. As the same time, the average annual income of a Keralite is about $300 per year. Is this the happy consequence of Communist rule? Hard to tell...Women have always enjoyed a more prominent status in Kerala culture - historically, this has been a matriarchal culture in which women, especially mothers, have played an important role. This fact certainly has contributed to the emphasis placed on education and the well being of children and families. Another factor to consider when trying to understand Kerala's relatively positive condition is the role of remissions from Keralites working abroad. One in every five rupees here is earned outside of India, mostly in the Gulf States, a stream of income that enables a higher standard of living for many families as well as funds for education and health services. Given the difficulties of dealing with powerful labor unions, economic development in the state falls well short of it's potential - many foreign companies don't want to deal with the labor issues that can be stifling. So to summarize, political, economic, and social elements all contribute to a somewhat complicated puzzle that easily confounds an uninitiated visitor from the second largest democracy in the world

Like the US, India is also divided into states, each having a long individual cultural and political history long before the establishment of modern India as an independent country. Most Indian states have one or more of their own languages - Malayalam is spoken only in Kerala - as well as individual religious or historical influences that makes many wonder what holds the collection of unique pieces together. It's been apparent to me over the past few weeks that one major component of that glue is the process of democracy itself despite the culture of ineffectiveness and corruption that is so pervasive. Just another of India's fascinating enigmas.

Posted by SteveJenn 09:15 Comments (1)

Cave Culture

A side trip to visit the Ajanta and Ellora Caves

When we first learned that we would be coming to India I spent a lot of time researching many of the ancient architectural wonders of the country. India is so vast, and travel is so difficult here that we knew we couldn't visit them all, but from the beginning I told Steve that at the top of my list was a chance to see the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. They are located in Maharashtra on the Deccan plateau, somewhat removed from the tourist trail, so we had booked flights from Goa to Aurangabad, the closest big city, with a connection in Mumbai.

Our exit from Goa did not go well. I had booked our flights thru an online travel site back in October, and as I have now learned, made the mistake of selecting an option using two different airlines. It is a long, long story that is still not fully settled, but because of the way things don't work here, after arriving on time with confirmed seats we found ourselves facing cancellation fees for a missed connection, hotel costs and full last minute fares totaling close to $700. As the four of us were travelling for most of December our budget had been carefully set, and an extra $700 was not in it. As I stood in the Goa airport beginning to face the reality that I might not get to see the caves, Steve mentioned something about looking into taking an overnight bus from Mumbai and I burst into tears. At that moment I had reached my breaking point of India travel. It was a female Jet Airways manager, who saw this probably ridiculous looking sobbing foreign woman standing with her two children and husband, who ultimately took pity on us and rearranged things to get us to our destination the next day. God bless Venant.

The first day we drove for a few hours north to the site of the Ajanta Caves. We viewed some typical scenes along the way:
As this was peak season there were long lines of people waiting to take buses into the ravine where the caves are located. At least we had some entertainment as we stood in the lines.


When we reached the parking lot it was a bit of a hike up to the caves. Some Indians opted for a ride up on a sedan chair.

A bit of history here from The Rough Guide:

"Hewn from the near-vertical side of a horshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at Ajanta occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. Less than two centuries ago, this remote spot was known only to the local Bhil tribes-people; the shadowy entrances to its abandoned stone chambers lay buried deep under a thick blanket of creepers and jungle. The chance arrival in 1819 of a small detachment of East India Company troops, however, brought the caves' obscurity to an abrupt end. Led to the top of the precipitous bluff that overlooks the gorge by a young "half-wild" scout, the tiger-hunters spied what has now been identified as the facade of Cave 10 protruding thru the foliage. The British soldiers had made one of the most sensational archeological finds of all time."


This was the site of a Buddhist monastery and inscriptions indicate that the earliest cave excavations took place in the second century BC. Ajanta had it's heyday from around 500 to 600 AD when it sheltered more than two hundred monks as well as a large community of painters, sculptors and laborers employed in excavating and decorating the cells and sanctuaries. There are a total of 28 colonnaded caves chiseled out of the chocolate brown and grey basalt cliffs lining the river.


In addition to the rows of stone Buddhas and other sculptures, it is the murals and painted artwork that line the interiors that are so remarkable. As I walked thru the caves I was particularly struck by the panelized decorative ceilings. So many of the motifs and designs created by these monks can still be found in the most beautiful buildings in the western world. The light levels are kept low to protect the art but you can still make out why they are regarded as the finest surviving gallery of art from any of the world's ancient civilizations.


This was our only available time to visit Ajanta, but I can't say that we weren't warned about the tortuous crowds before we came:

"In spite of its comparative remoteness, Ajanta receives an extraordinary number of visitors. If you want to enjoy this site in anything close to its original serenity, avoid coming on a weekend or public holiday- it takes a fertile imagination indeed to picture Buddhist monks filing softly around the rough stone steps when riotous school kids and holiday-makers are clambering over them."
It was very difficult to remain focused on the sights after yet another piercing whistle from a guard yelling at the Indian tourists not to take flash photos of the artwork. Deep breaths, deep breaths Jenn, you are viewing a world treasure...

Pushing and shoving is the way they queue.

The girls found a lovely spot to sit on our way out to join the line for the 45 minute wait for the buses.


The next day we stopped at the dramatic fort of Daulatabad on our way to the Ellora caves. I won't bore you with the history, suffice it to say it involves some fighting between a bunch of Hindus, Jains, and Muslims.

As usual we found ourselves part of the attraction for the Indian tourists. I wonder sometimes just how many thousands of phones and cameras in India include a picture of us.

When we reached Ellora in the afternoon we were glad to find that there were no buses involved, and the crowds were lighter. We had some relative peace and quiet exploring for a while. There are 34 caves here, and they were started in the middle of the sixth century, about the time that Ajanta was abandoned. This was the twilight of the Buddhist era in central India, and by the seventh century Hinduism was on the rise, so the majority of the caves here are Hindu, culminating in the building of the colossal Kailash Temple in the eighth century. Where Ajanta is prized for its paintings and location, here architecture and sculpture reign supreme.


Some residents of the caves:
We rested for a few minutes, as we had saved the best for last and wanted to view the Kailash Temple in the afternoon light. This monolithic structure is Ellora's masterpiece. It took one hundred years and four generations of kings, architects and craftsmen before the project was completed. The temple was hewn from solid rock and the sheer scale is staggering. All in all, a quarter of a million tons of chippings and debris are estimated to have been cut from the hillside, with no room for improvisation or error. The temple was conceived as a giant replica of Shiva and Parvarti's Himalayan abode, the pyramidal Mount Kailash- a Tibetan peak said to be the "divine axis" between heaven and earth. The Sanborns said, not too shabby...

Posted by SteveJenn 03:29 Comments (1)

Service Learning at TRINS

Students teach English at government primary schools

One of the important themes that runs through the TRINS school culture is the importance of community service work. An earlier blog posting on the Food Fest showed one of the ways in which the students can help out. Another program that offers students a more direct service experience involved all of the members of the 11th grade class who board a bus each Wednesday morning and visit three near-by local government run elementary schools. The purpose of the visits is to teach students from grades 1 to 5 a little bit of English language during the weekly hour long visit. From what I observed, there was a whole lot more going on than language instruction.

Government elementary schools normally start the school day at 10:00 am but on Wednesdays, the children voluntarily come to school an hour earlier to participate in the program.

The design of most government schools I've saw reminded me very much of a long row of stables - one door into a room that often had no lights at all, a concrete floor, grimy and cluttered walls, and a minimum of classroom furniture. At the end of the day, the doors are secure from the outside with large padlocks. Aside from texts, a chalkboard was frequently the only tool the teacher had to work with.
I asked the boys to show me their muscles...

Government schools in India are typically poorly resourced, overcrowded, often bleak environments for children. The school we visited not atypical in this regard though bleak would be too strong an adjective for the school we viewed during our visit - the students were quite lively upon the arrival of the TRINS students and it was clear that a close repore has developed between the TRINS kids, who worked as a pair in each classroom, and their energetic students.

The only light in the room came from the windows and small opening in the ceiling.
Acquiring a tolerance for a lack of space is learned early.

A number of the TRINS students are not from Kerala and do not speak Malayalam, so communication can be a rather challenging task sometimes.

What I witnessed was quite impressive - the TRINS kids worked alone in the classrooms without the teacher present and had control of the class. Like benevolent big brothers and sisters, the students practiced introducing themselves then recited nursery rhymes such as "1,2, buckle my shoe" to practice numbers and vocabulary. Everyone involved was having a great time. With only one 50 minute English lesson per week, none of the children seemed to be making dramatic progress toward English fluency, but they were enjoying themselves and being exposed to older students who were serving as positive role models. For the TRINS students who mostly come from quite comfortable economic conditions, the chance to give of themselves to others less fortunate can be a powerful experience for building compassion and developing a sense of commitment to assist the disadvantaged, an attitude that quite frankly is lacking in many Indian people.

Learning numbers with rhymes

What's a buckle?

Twinkle, Twinkle...

Education has become big business in India as more and more people seek alternatives to ineffective government schools. Kerala leads the country with regard to the education level of its citizens so these schools are producing results despite their worn and primitive appearance. Still, one can't help but wonder how these kids might learn if provided with adequate learning resources. Parents ask the same question and don't wait to find out - numerous private schools available at a mostly manageable cost are filling with students leaving local government schools. We were told that in an effort to persuade parents to not remove their children in favor of a private school, the school we were visiting recently began to serve a free breakfast to the students upon their arrival. The photos below offer a glimpse of what this breakfast experience is like.
Kitchen ladies
Serving idlis
Breakfast is served

I came away from the visit completely impressed with the way in which the TRINS students conducted themselves - these weekly school visits offer as much education as their lessons back in the classrooms. I also tried to imagine the conditions of government schools in parts of India that were much more poor and less educated. Half of India's population is under 25 - providing an adequate education for all young people will continue to remain one of the countries most difficult challenges.

Posted by SteveJenn 08:15 Comments (1)

Leaving 2010 Behind in Mumbai

Reconnecting with friends and seeing the city from every angle

The grand finale of our December wanderings in India landed us for a couple of days in Mumbai, a.k.a. Bombay, the financial heart of India but also holder of numerous other less auspicious titles as well. The grand majority of people we met who had been to Mumbai were happy to leave it behind - crowded, chaotic, polluted, crowded - these are the adjectives most commonly associated with India's Gotham. Curiosity drew me the place, Jenn would have just have soon skipped it altogether were it not for the opportunity to visit some distant friends of ours who we met on our honeymoon while travelling in Indonesia. They live in Mumbai with their two daughters who are about the same age as our girls. If we were going to be on the road for New Year's Eve, spending it in Mumbai with friends promised an interesting experience.
Our mode of transport this time was an overnight train from Aurangabad where we had our cave adventures into Victoria station in Mumbai. We boarded the train after midnight (it was running an hour late at this point) and managed to push and nudge our way into our compartment. The reservations computer gave us bunks in different compartments but Jenn managed to negotiate some rearranging so that we had a room to ourselves. Once settled, sleep fell over us quickly and we all rested quite comfortably during the overnight hours of darkness.
Elena waits for the train.

Like the rest of Mumbai, the train traffic exceeds the capacity of the infrastructure to support it and we soon found ourselves intermittently stalled on the tracks awaiting an open bay at Victoria. By the time we finally reached the station, the train was five hours late. The plan was to meet our friends Gilles and Ferzin along with their family at the Gate to India to join them for an excursion out to Elephanta Island (for more caves). Our first taste of Mumbai confirmed the place's reputation - the taut from whom we hired a cab stuck us with a 25 year old Ambassador beater - the fact that it continued to move was a testament to the Indian ability to keep nearly anything going with a few pieces of wire and some gum. Or so I thought. As we pulled out of the exit from the station and into the Mumbai traffic, the clunker stalled halfway across the road. The driver motioned me to quickly get out and push the thing back into the station driveway while frantically attempted a roll back start up. It finally fired up and we were off but for how long? Every time the wreck stopped in traffic, I was sure it was going to die once more, but it made it all the way to YMCA International House where we were staying in the heart of the very touristy Colaba district just a few minutes from the Gate of India, the Taj Hotel, and infamous Mumbai made infamous by 2008 terrorist attacks.
The Gateway to India, built in honor of the 1911 visit of King George V and Queen Mary and now a serves as a major meeting point for tourists and locals.

The Gateway again with the very ritzy Taj Hotel behind it.

After dumping our bags, we rushed across the square just in time to meet our friends and board the ferry for the hour long sailing to Elephanta Island. It was great to see Ferzin and Gilles Moutounet - the last time we were together was during their visit to the US about 10 years ago. Not unexpectedly, the kids hit it off quite nicely and the outing gave us a chance to get reacquainted after such a long time apart. Ferzin is a native of Mumbai and Gilles hails originally from Paris. Jenn and I got to know them on the lip of a volcano cauldron in Java where we were trying to watch the sunrise with hundreds of Indonesian telecom employees on crushed together with us on their company outing. We discovered we were all on our way to the same town in Bali and forged a friendship in the days that followed.

Both Indian and non-Indian tourists are drawn to Elephanta Island for it's collection of cave temples - having just arrived from Ajanta and Elora, we were hard to impress. Still, it is always fascinating to see how similar and different tourists from different cultures can be. The trip up to the caves involved a long gauntlet of a stairway packed on each side with hawkers pushing every sort of souvenir junk imaginable.
Not an uncommon site in India - there is little collective appreciation for natural resources. The little train in the back tows tourists down the length of the jetty where the ferry boats are docked.

Corn fresh off the grill.
Sedan chairs were available - 600 rupees (about $12.00) for the ride up, 200 rupees on the way down.

The temple caves of Elephanta.

We landed back at the Gateway after dark and said good-bye to our friends until the following day, New Year's Eve. After a comfortable, quiet night at the hotel, we set out to explore the Colaba area for a little shopping and people watching. I experienced what must be a common sensation for the first-time visitor to this area - the nagging imagination of the horror that took place in this very area in November of 2008 when over a hundred people died and many more were injured. We ate lunch at the locally famous Cafe Leopold, one of the first palces to be attacked as gunmen fired from the street into the open restaurant killing 10 people and injuring many more. It's a hopping place, filled with tourists and locals alike. The food was great and the beer flowed abundantly.
Inside Leopold's

Serve-yourself beer dispensers are a specialty of Leopold's

I took this photo from my seat inside Leopold's - a rather startling but direct message to would be terrorists.

A military armored personnel carrier with heavily armed police just outside the door to Leopold's.

While in Colaba, I sought out the office for Reality Tours, a group that offers guided tours through Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia which sits right in the middle of Mumbai. They offered tours even on New Year's Day so I signed on for the next morning once I found their very tiny office.
The office for Reality Tours.

After a little more shopping, we headed back to the room to prepare for the evening's events. The girls were sleeping over Ferzin and Gilles with Gilles' parents, visiting from France, looking after them while we attended a massive New year's Eve party at the Bombay Gymkhana, a locally famous health and social club where Ferzin is a member. We hired a cab to take us across town enabling us the opportunity to experience first hand the infamous Mumbai traffic. Our friend live on the fifth floor of a 23 story high rise with a beautiful view of the city.
The view from the top of their apartment

The girls check out photos of their four honeymooning parents

The girls had their own New Year's Eve celebration.
The Moutounets live right next door to the Mumbai Four Season's Hotel, so we went next door to check out the New Year's Eve scene in one of the most luxurious hotels in the city.
Many goodies were being made ready for the evening's events.

Ferzin drove us to the club on a rather cool and windy evening for an outside event. The guest list included over 2000 people sitting at tables set out on the cricket pitch with a dance floor the size of a baseball infield. Most people were dressed to the hilt in their New Year's Eve best I couldn't help but feel like I had crashed a party for a crowd I didn't really belong to, which was, in fact, the case. It was slow to get going but picked up as the clock ticked toward midnight. The buffet dinner just went on and on with every kind of Indian dish available along with numerous other Asian dishes. There were ice sculptures gracing the dessert tables and a very "hip" and very loud band enjoining the crowd to dance.
The guest begin to arrive.

An amazing spread of food and treats.

The first ice we'd seen in months

The scene on the dance floor

Ferzin, Gilles, and Jenn

Our table included Gilles' sister and Ferzin's friend and her husband who were visiting from England.

The energy level grew with the approach of midnight which was greeted with colorful fireworks display put on by the club.

Like the fireworks, the party seemed to pop brilliantly for a short time before fizzling and fading quickly in the 30 minutes past midnight. Due to sound level restrictions (something I did not think existed in India), the party moved inside but never really recovered as people, including us slowly dispersed and headed somewhere - we went to the Y.

A few hours later, I found myself at the train station joining up with the others taking the tour of the Dharavi slum. The organization that conducts the tours, Reality Tours, has a good relationship with the people with whom they interact and offer job training and assistance centers with the profits they make from the tours. As part of their ethical tourism policy, they also forbid the taking of photos during their tours, so any photos seen here have been taken from the internet.

I wasn't sure what to expect by taking this tour. I wasn't completely comfortable on account of the voyeuristic element of going out of my way to see people worse off than me. Anticipation of emotional and maybe even physical discomfort hung over me we approached the edge of the slum. I expected to feel alien and out of place. I envisioned extreme poverty and miserable people. It's because of these fears and preconceptions that I am so grateful to myself for making the trip - I was afforded the chance to displace ignorance and fear with truth and understanding. It's one of the major reasons I came to India.

First some stats - the Dharavi slum is one of numerous slums in Mumbai but holds the title of largest slum in Asia, a claim that is disputed but nonetheless believable when visiting. What makes Dharavi unique is it's location in the heart of the Mumbai financial district. The slum area encompasses only 3/4 of a square mile but is home to close 1,000,000 people. In such an expensive city as Mumbai, the slums are the only affordable destinations for rural and urban poor to settle.
Surprisingly (to me anyway), it is a very bustling industrial area with thousands of businesses both small and large employing scores of workers involved in production of clothing, consumer products of every kind, and food as well as the recycling of everything and anything that can be reused. Walking through the narrow alleyways, the place was a crowded beehive of activity - cluttered and filthy with air filled with various fumes and stenches in places, but is people were working hard no matter what door or window I peered through. Children ran through about in streets peppered with every kind of trash and filth but they did so with great energy and joy - wherever we went, the children came out to greet us and want to be in our pictures.
Laborers wore the soot and grime of their dirty work, but everyone else somehow managed to stay amazingly clean while moving about is squalor of some of the streets and passageways.
And they were very gracious people - the entire time we snaked our way through gaps between buildings wide enough for one way traffic, touring various industries and shops, and walking down streets jammed with trucks and carts and animals and every sort of refuse, not once was I asked by anyone for anything. As was the case during all of my time in India, I occasionally felt the stare of curious eyes but never did those eyes seem suspicious or hostile. There was a palpable sense of pride in this tight knit community of people living more closely than I can ever imagine and who possess so very little. Their water comes from scarce and sparsely situated taps that deliver once a day, at an unannounced time, for perhaps an hour - miss it and go thirsty. A few multistory buildings dot the slum street plan, but most buildings are constructed from the debris of the more affluent in arrangements and patterns of metal, plastic, cloth, and wood that both construct an architectural landscape seen perhaps in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.
The longer our two hour tour progressed, the more relaxed I felt. The slum dwellers are quite accustomed to the tours coming through and are aware of the job training programs offered by Reality Tours using the income of the tours. Coming here alone would likely be a different experience - finding one's way out might take days - but I feel fortunate for having had the opportunity to visit as part of group with an organization having the best interests of the slum dwellers at heart.

Jenn met the Moutounets in town to gather the girls, have some lunch, and share farewells. I met them back in the hotel after a crowded train ride back from Dharavi and some time spent watching the Saturday cricket matches played by serious middle-aged men decked out in full whites on a massive expanse of green open space lined by elegant stone buildings and the aura of a different era - it was certainly a different world from the one I left an hour earlier. After a long night for all of us and a general feeling of travel fatigue, we laid low at the hotel for the afternoon in preparation for an early trip to the airport and a return "home" to Kerala.

Posted by SteveJenn 20:39 Comments (1)

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