Saturday, May 17, 2008

Stranded in Bangkok

Bangkok skyline from Lumbini Park.

Within hours of our harrowing rickshaw ride skidding through the dark streets to Madras airport in the hands of an intoxicated betel nut addict, Katlijn and I were surprised to find ourselves, still living, still breathing, in the immaculate shine of a bright ultra-modern living room, wearing complimentary white bath robes, sweating from the warmth of a hot shower, and roaring with laughter at the ludicrous sub-titles of a pirated Sex And the City DVD. Yes, we were in the trendy gay-chic of Geert's Bangkok apartment. Not bad for a couple of crusty backpackers, just out of India, reeking of Teva feet.

Katlijn and Andrew gazing over the city from Geert's rooftop pool.

In the grand palace, the mid-day sun glistens off of Wat Phra Kaeo's gorgeous curved rooftop. These elaborate layered roofs are typical of South-East Asia Buddhist temple architecture.

It is said that Thailand has three seasons: hot, hotter, and f***ing hot. We arrived at the onset of the latter. We made a few half-hearted attempts to explore the city, but after an hour or two bumbling lethargically about the crumbling sidewalks in a profuse sweat, we discovered that, in the end, the only respite from the hot polluted stench of Bangkok is a swanky air-conditioned apartment complex. And this is normally where Geert would find us after he came home from a long hard day of earning huge sums of money: still in the confines of his living room, still wearing fluffy white bath robes, still watching pirated chick flicks. Still stinky-footed.

Bangkok's infamous tuk-tuks.

Wat Pho's stupas at dusk.

We didn't see much of Bangkok that first week. On our best days, Katlijn and I would gather our resolve, tear our eyes from the high-definition thin-screen television set, then, in a burst of inspiration, walk no further than the air-conditioned sanctuary of the nearby food court... but oh, what a food court ! A food court that would be the envy of any American-style uber-mall. A food court so massive it supported the entire battery of Eastern cuisine, Western fast food, and multiple competing coffee franchises. A food court that not only had a system of computerized cardboard passes to automate your purchase, but advertised nearby Starbucks and film attractions on slick three dimensional televisions. Between slurping Kimchi Ramen clasped with metal chopsticks and devouring California rolls dipped in a thick wasabi-soy sauce concentration, we stared dumbfounded at the shiny black hipness of Bangkok's twenty-first century excess. It's size and scope Singaporean. Bikaner's dream realized.

Somewhat sheepishly, I thought how, not so long ago, Katlijn and I would escape the heat of Puducherry's exposed boardwalk by running into the shade of a concrete hole in the wall. They didn't have much on the menu. In fact, I don't recall if they even had a menu. You just ate whatever lentils they happened to have that day, dumped unattractively on a metal plate from a large bucket at such a height that dense yellow curry splattered against the grimy walls and spilled onto the table top. We dipped our chapattis into the copious muck, scooped rice into our mouths with our thumb and forefinger, and eyed the cold metal cup of complimentary drinking water with suspicion. We were happy. While basking in front of the cool breeze of a high-power rusty fan, her hair blowing in the wind, Katlijn shouted over the racket about the diversity of India's fantastic gastronomy:


"WHAT WAS THAT !?" I shouted back.


"TELL ME ABOUT IT!" I hollered, beaming with contentment, holding down the napkins with my sticky fingers. "I MEAN, COULD THERE BE ANOTHER TYPE OF LENTIL CURRY !?"

In contrast, while Bangkok's massive food courts could very roughly replicate the world's gastronomy, their air-conditioned sterility was entirely devoid of the food's underlying culture and feel rendering the high-tech convenience uninspiring. Similarly, the neighbouring grocery store was cathedral-like in its magnificence, but shopping in it was a thoroughly exhausting un-religious experience. Somewhere between India and Thailand, price tags had taken the place of a long heated debate over a product's worth. The thick wet smell of fresh fruit was staunched by air-tight plastic wrap. Muzak replaced the crackle of a Bombay talkie. Modernity had created distance between people and the food they eat.

Touching up Buddhist murals in the Grand Palace.

Nevertheless, like all place in the world, Bangkok has its charms: one of the world's most jaw-dropping palace and temple complexes, a chinatown with all the grungy polluted dirtiness of the real thing, and, of course, one of Southeast Asia's most diverse and bizarre nightlife scenes. On Geert's birthday, we got dressed up in our spiffiest pair of North Face zip-off pants for a night out at one of Bangkok's swanky cocktail bars. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us in because we were wearing Teva sandals (I no longer own a pair of shoes), so the whole party had to be moved to a more backpacker-friendly gay district where we also met up with Maya, a lesbian Dutch yogic we knew from our Bengaluru meditation experience. Together, I am embarrassed to report, we whiled away the late night hours in the company of drag queens playing "spot the lady-boy" and attending an appalling ping pong show which, regardless of your sexual preference, is an event of unparalleled poor taste.

Beautiful men.

Giant reclining Buddhas, futuristic sky-trains, orange-robed monks, Asians in mini-skirts, the dirty streets of old Bangkok and the polluted crush of new Bangkok, the King of Thailand and countless failed coups. Golden Siam's frenetic cocktail swirling about us, only one thing was certain: we weren't in India anymore.

Next time, Geert took us bowling.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Aurevoir India

Sidewalk watermelon store.

Leaving the cushy confines of our backwater luxury barge, Katlijn and I took a short train ride to the capital of Kerala, Thiruvanthapunam: yet another Indian capital that has contracted the post-colonial "renaming" plague sweeping across this part of the world rendering all village, township, and city name in its wake sadly unpronounceable and unrecognizable to the rest of the world's population. The British, quite sensibly, shortened its original name to Trivandrum, but regardless of what you call it, the city itself is wholly unremarkable and we didn't linger long before we caught a plane to Chennai (that would be former Madras) and then a bus to Puducherry (that would be former Pondicherry).

Scenes of typical small town India en route to Puducherry.

After Mumbai and Old Goa, Puducherry is the last in our trilogy of colonial era cities. French East India's lesser known colony was contemporary with the better known British India and even lasted several decades after the English finally quit India. In fact, the French colony initially held the upper hand against the British and probably would have ruled the country had the French East Indian Trading company not decided that their representatives were playing too much politics and doing too little trading. Disputes with the British ended peacefully and the existing management was sacked. As a result, French East Indian profits increased in the short run, but France was effectively removed as an influence on the sub-continent condemning the Indians to a future of milky tea and dubious sporting events instead of fine wines and exotic cheeses.

Puducherry is a living testament to what India would be like had its history taken a more favorable course. In place of India's revolting sweet breads, fresh baguettes would have been eaten at breakfast. Instead of "3-in-1" South India powdered coffee mixes, these baguettes would be served with actual filtered coffee. Indians would speak an exotic kind of Abu-accented Francais, and police officers would patrol the streets in red kepis. Broad stretches of beach would be covered with pretty boardwalks instead of cow dung. Yes, the French colonists had their standards, and by the looks of Puducherry, it was head and shoulders above that of the average English Officer.

Katlijn and her baguette breakfast in bed. Sure beats dosas !

At dawn and dusk, Puducherry's denizens turn out by the thousand at the boardwalk for their daily yoga workout, meditation sitting, cricket matches, jogging, rope skipping, and more.

But the French colonialists were (obviously) not without their eccentricities, and a French woman known as "The Mother" ("La Maman" in Puducherry) is pasted across the walls of the local cafes, bakeries, and yoga retreats. She was a world famous self-proclaimed guru and her synthesis of yoga and modern science is now France's best-known colonial legacy. She is also the architect of nearby Utopia, Auroville, which is either "a place where all human beings of goodwill live freely as citizens of the world" in The Mother's own words, or simply an "uber-hippy, free love, hangout"- depending on who you talk to.

In the spirit of The Mother and deference to our Munar tea plantation trekking guides, Katlijn and I decided to finally brave an Indian Ayurvedic massage before leaving the country. I must admit that I approached this massage with some degree of apprehension. The last time I entrusted my body to an Eastern-oriented Masseuse was in Istanbul where my hide was violently scraped off by a fat Turk who subsequently sat on my back and pounded me senseless against a hard marble slab.

A typical Ayurvedic massage is a thoroughly humiliating experience that involves a lot of waiting around half naked in a ridiculous white thong and having several liters of oil poured all over your body as two Ayurvedic doctors rub it roughly into your skin until it becomes a flabby unctuous muck. The motions of the doctors is done in exact synchronicity while bantering about the latest cricket match. Slipping about the oily table top under their mechanical drubbing, I began to imagine myself as a car going through an automatic car wash or the dishes being scrubbed clean. Quite suddenly, the painful kneading stopped causing me to slowly skid across the slippery table top until one of them caught me in time before I slid clear of the edge and into the thick puddle of ooze accumulating on the floor below. They supported me on their shoulders as I skated my oily feet across the floor into what can only be described as a human oven. I sat upright on a hot chair while they closed two wooden panels around me so that only my greasy little head poked out the top. Then they baked me liked a buttered chicken.

I spent what felt like an eternity alone in my oven prison until I could see steam rising in the cracks around my ears. Despite applying my recently acquired meditation techniques to calm myself, it wasn't long before I started wondering if my Ayurvedic doctors were in fact cannibals and that I was being cooked in a large deep fat fryer.

"Excuse me ?" I called out. No answer.

I strained my neck and craned my head out from the hole in my oven. "Excuse me !? You can let me out now. I think I'm done," I suggested to the empty room next door.

Finally, just as my increasingly wild Ayurvedic cannibal doctor fantasies were bringing me to the verge of panic, the two masseuses re-emerged, opened the door, and slid me across the room into a cold shower. A sense of relief poured over me as I washed the sweat and oil from my body.

Upon our release from the Ayurvedic hospital, we made our way back into town and caught our last India bus ride to Madras. We were almost at the airport now. Our last uncomfortable commute nearly over. Soon we would be flying away from this noisy country to the backpacker safe haven of Thailand. A reward, we thought, for two and a half long months of intermittent stomach illnesses and rabid dogs.

As though the entire country's collective brain had contrived one final act of magical realism to send us off in true India style, our last rickshaw driver was completely stoned. We both agreed that he seemed a bit odd at first as we haggled over a fair price, but don't all Indian rickshaw drivers ? We weren't certain, however, until he started darting wildly between long haul cargo trucks and motorcycles and potholes, one hand on the wheel, neither eye on the road. Our lives flashing before our eyes, I saw his ruddy betel nut smile flashing in the dark. With our rickshaw skidding through the night towards the Madras airport on two wheels, I heard him yelling madly over the howling winds "Hello ! Where you come from ? Canada !? Good country ! My paan-wallah lives in Winnipeg. Lot's of Indians there !"

Sometime in the middle of the night, tired and exhausted once again from just another day in India, we were somehow surprised to find ourselves sitting on a comfortable Thai Air jet readying for takeoff. Like the thousands of Indian backpackers before me en route to Bangkok after enduring months of the sub-continent, I breathed a loud sigh of relief when I felt the plane lurch upwards and the wheels lift off the ground. Katlijn was finally going to get those Thai beaches she dreamed of during long nights of altitude induced sleeplessness on the freezing peaks of the Himalaya.

I could hear the dull ring of the steward's bell above the distant hum of the engines. The sterile atmosphere of the commercial airliner was the antithesis of India's explosive life. To my surprise, I felt a small pang of sadness welling up inside me as my mind distanced itself from the experience of travelling the sub-continent.

I turned my head towards the pristine window of the cabin and stared into the placid clouds outside, closed my eyes, and drifted into sleep with Varanasi's hand squishers and the rotting smile of its betel nut addicted rickshaw-wallahs, the many appendages of Saranath's queue beasts and their underwater evolutionary cousins in Hampi, Kajuraho's erotic carvings and the splendor of the Taj Mahal, Keoladio's dastardly touts and the foggy binoculars they peddle, elephants in the pink city, white rats in the Thar desert, and the indigo hue of Jodpur's old city, the merciless grind of Alice the camel's awkward gait, Orneel's lustful raspberries, sandy desert chapattis, Bikaner's dubious dancing camel show, transvestites on the express train, and late-night Octopussy in Udaipur, Mumbai's modern skyscrapers and slick coffee shops, Bombay's sprawling slums and dingy holes in the wall, invisible widows, cheeky cabbies, and gossiping hotel men, Portugal's lost paradise and Goan prawn curry, the noble silence of ancient Buddhist retreats and the clogged arteries of Bengaluru's IT future, floating palaces and Keralan fried fish, marathon theatrical Hindu bloodbaths, velvety hills of tea, French Baguettes on the boardwalk, tap dancing monkeys on corrugated rooftops, dog's barking on the ghats, cow's on the beach...

India is the logic of a dream, too elusive to be captured by words.

The Backwaters

Sunset over Kerala's backwaters.

It was another long and dusty ride in a windowless bus down the mountain from Munar back to the lowland city of Kottayam. From there, we took a local ferry to the tourist town of Alappuzah while surveying the gorgeous green landscape of of Kerala's river-side life and rice plantations.

In 1957, Kerala became the first place in the world to freely elect a communist government (the second time this rare event occured was in Nepal). This is not too surprising considering that India initially sided with the Soviet Union during the cold war. More surprising is the degree of success with which this communist government has managed in the last fifty years. It has been labeled the most socially advanced state in India boasting the highest literacy rate in any developing nation in the world (91 %), an infant mortality rate one fifth the national average, and a life expectancy that is 10 years longer than the rest of the country. Communists can take heart in Kerala as evidence that there may, after all, be some grain of truth in this economic philosophy.

The red flag of communism hanging over Kerala's waterways.

Unfortunately, a lack of any industrial development in the area has forced many of their educated youth to either leave the region, or simply languish in failed potential: Kerala also has the highest suicide and liquor consumption statistics in the country. The recent boom in tourism is seen as a solution to this problem, and nowhere is this more evident than in the small town of Alappuzha which serves as a gateway to Kerala's famous backwaters. Several ferry stops before we arrived at the city, our boat was flooded with a wave of pushy touts, engulfing every white passenger in a sea of countless hotel and river boat tour offers. Katlijn and I were quickly swept away towards what could possibly be the crummiest budget accommodation offer in all of India. Sweating profusely underneath a holy mosquito net listening to the loud repetitive din of a rusty overhead fan wobbling ineffectively above us, Katlijn observed that "this is the worst place in the world we could be right now" before we decided to down a couple of sleeping pills to hasten the arrival of dawn.

Faced with the prospect of another restless night in South India's ever climbing temperatures, we decided to take an overnight trip on a personal luxury house boat- the quintessential Kerala backwater experience.

Our houseboat.

Shameful decadence. A typical on-board meal presented to us by our chef: salads, curries, rice, and Keralan-style fried fish.

The backwaters are a vast 900 km network of thin waterways meandering labyrinthine along Kerala's coastline. As our house boat made its way through these waters, we floated quietly by gorgeous villages, mosques, churches, and temples nestled along the riverbanks between thick palm tree jungles, coconut groves, and rice paddies. The journey is filled with all the exotic sites of tropical backwaters: fishermen fishing, women smacking their laundry on make-shift ghats, and commuters paddling canoes along liquid highways.

House boats floating along the river.

Canoes take the place of cars in Kerala's backwaters.

Riverside life.

Trees reflecting in the early evening light off a narrow waterway

Keralan backwater families.

As Katlijn and I relaxed in the comforts of our admittedly excessive floating palace, guzzling coconut milk and gorging on Kerala's delicious fish curries brought to us by our personal on-board chef, we felt happy to be doing our part in solving Kerala's social woes.

India's tea hills

Andrew and our trekking guide sharing a chuckle at Top station.

As Kerala's lowland temperatures began to rise, we decided to head to the cooler climate of the surrounding hills. A few rusty old windowless ex-school buses make their way from Kochi and its blood drenched Kathakali stages to the old British tea plantations in Munar. From here, we stumbled upon a small group of eco-tourists who offered us guided treks through the mountain air and manicured tea estates of the surrounding Western Ghats.

Clouds descending on the tea covered hills.

Andrew and Katlijn enjoying a rest stop near some small waterfalls.

Massive expanses of perfectly proportioned tea plants cover the hilly landscape in a bright green blanket providing a beautifully exotic backdrop as we made our way around the region's mountains and valleys. Indian trekking guides differ from those in the West in that explanations about the area's outstanding flora and fauna are always accompanied by a detailed explanation of their various medicinal purposes transforming your typical walking trail chit-chat into a bizarre blend of wilderness ecology and detailed pharmaceutical instructions:

"Stomach problems ? Chew two ginger roots and a piece of crushed tree bark three times a day. Don't take this with alcohol or during pregnancy."

"Sore throat ? Smoke three teak leaves mixed with a solution of two parts dried tamarind and one part masala. Get plenty of rest and avoid dairy products."
Good for mosquito bites.

Each diagnosis was given while he scrounged through the dirt looking for the various ingredients. Nevertheless, he was very knowledgeable and we enjoyed his company immensely: nothing is more heart warming than a naturalist excited about his work, even if he is a bit of an Ayurvedic quack.

Storm coming.

As we had experienced in Nepal, there is something about the Western trekker - Indian guide relationship that is vaguely analogous to a master and slave, British colonist and Indian subject. When storm clouds rolled in and drowned the valley in a hard persistent rain, our guide quickly herded us into a village shelter where we watched him set up our tent in the downpour. His wet sandal-clad feet sloshed about the muddy pathways in search of tables and chairs for our comfort and he was constantly vigilant to ensure we had a piping hot pot of tea nearby steeped to the appropriate amount of bitterness for the duration of storm. At dinner time, he arrived at our doorway in the dark, panting and drenched in rain water, magically producing a delicious meal that would rival even the best Indian restaurants in Kerala. Any requests for help were quickly rebuked. If we attempted to leave the shelter and help him set up, he would promptly chase us back inside.

Katlijn and Andrew waiting out the storm in the village shelter while feeding themselves a tasty banana leaf thali Indian style (thumb and fingers). Best food we ever ate on a backpacking trip.

The village we stayed at is supported by this betel nut palm plantation.

The next morning, we had a long wet walk up to the region's highest tea plantation where we caught a jeep to Munar. On the way back, our guides taught us about the lives of the hill tribe tea workers and their efforts to responsibly bring tourism to some of these communities.

Early morning in the Western Ghats. Cotton trees and betel nut palms.

Rains made it a long wet uphill slog through muddy grasslands.

Images from the picturesque tea factory at the top.

This tea factory still uses British colonial era machines to process the surrounding tea leaves.

While we were happy to get back to Munar and change into dry clothes, our short trek through the tea plantations was one of our favourite trips in India, as much for the fine scenery as for the conversations with our excellent and conscientious guides.

Andrew getting ready for bed with the local bucket system.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

God's Own Country

Worn and dilapidated gravestone of a forgotten Dutch trainer in the corner of Kochi's graveyard.

A long overnight train ride away from Arun's tasty idli breakfasts and Bangaluru's appalling traffic conditions lies the amazingly laid-back town of Kochi, deep in the heart of what is known in India as "God's own country", Kerala. In the thirty minutes it took us to circumnavigate the charming, albeit touristy, 16th century trading center, we took in such diverse colonial remnants as giant Chinese fishing nets, white washed Portuguese cottages, British Raj mansions, Muslim mosques, and Jewish synagogues. Drinking outstanding tea and devouring some of South India's spiciest seafood curry creations in the shadow of the town's abundant foliage, the collective relief of India's weary travellers was almost palpable.

While colonialists somehow managed to sew a European country village into the fabric of a tropical Indian coastal landscape and culture, vestiges of Kerala's native traditions were kept alive. Our favourite Indian art form is, without a doubt, Kathakali. Developed at roughly the same time Shakespeare penned his great plays, Kathakali is South India's own unique form of theatre. To the beat of four drummer's complex rhythms and the exotic melancholic voice of a lone male singer, players dance and act out the great Indian Hindu epics in long drawn out performances that last more than twelve hours. In place of words or song, the story is told through a system of dramatic bodily gestures and evocative, even frightening, facial and eye movements. During the climax, performances become extremely intense. The drummers are drenched in their own sweat as their pounding sends the dancers into aggressive motions, contorting their faces into countenances made more ominously expressive through the use of dies which turn the whites of their eyes a deep crimson.

Kathakali performers study 12 years of dancing, theater, and make-up to master their art form. Preparation before a performance lasts several hours. Paint, elaborate costumes, decorated headpieces and meditation are required to transform themselves physically and mentally into the gods and demons they play.

The stories are a tad on the grizzly side. The performance we saw featured the hero literally eating the intestines of the villain in an act that was made more horrific by the simplicity of the props: a very long white cord and a lot of thin red paint. The final scene had the hero's exotic facial paints covered in fake blood dripping from his mouth, which he wiped off and ran through his wife's hair, with the villain on his back writhing about the stage floor in his own intestines kicking about in a pool of thin red liquid. Personally, I think Shakespeare would have loved it.

To tell you the truth, twelve hours of this sort of entertainment would be a bit much for even the most sadistic of Western horror freaks and shorter, feature film length, adaptations have been developed for the area's tourists. Interestingly, these adaptations are considered a major affront to many of Kerala's people. Kathakali is more than theatre, it is considered an act of worship and an important religious ceremony. Kathakali artists participating in curtailed tourist performances consider it offensive to their gods and often do so only out of desperation to support their families. Some performers have found this type of livelihood so despicable they have become depressed and resorted to alcoholism.

A Kathakali demon dancing in full regalia. Tourism is a mixed blessing for Kerala's theater tradition. While the money keeps their intense art form alive, its presentation must be modified to suit a Western audience. These adaptations are considered blasphemy to serious students of this religious musical theatre.