Istanbul: A Welcome Experience of Familiarity & Modernity

Goa was a truly relaxing delight. Josh availed himself of the Indian beer Kingfisher for the last time as we spent our days at the beach. The ocean is clean with playful waves, soft sand, and very few people, as we were at the end of the tourist season.

We arrived in Istanbul yesterday, and never thought the overwhelming sentiment upon landing in the middle east would be the comfort of familiarity and social modernity, but I guess 7 weeks in India will do that to you. There is quite a bit of uncertainty about the proper categorization of Turkey – Asian, European or Middle Eastern (though the entire concept of Middle Eastern entails it’s own uncertainty)? Our impression of Istanbul is that it is like being in Europe, and it is strange after a couple months in India to see people on Dates! Young people holding hands, social groups that include humans of both genders, women in tank tops, Aryans.

Photos to come from this singular Eurasian-Middle Eastern country.

-j&d

 

Our hangout at the beach at Hotel Vivanta.

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Our hangout on the beach at Leela Resort.Photo May 03, 6 41 26 PM

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Another honeymoon cake, with tasty champagne.goahoneymoon 

Sign recommending driving the scooter rental at posted speeds, which we obeyed.goabike

Southern India, Cows, and Playtime for Josh

Southern India is nicer than the north in that the cuisine is easier on the western digestive track, the people are nicer and more genuine (in our experience, and except for the part of Northern India that is essentially Tibet), the people seem to be more literate and can help you out, and the people are nicer – they will help you out and they aren’t trying to charge you 600% more for being white and 800% more for being American (seriously some merchants freaking ask you what country you’re from before giving you a price). And the merchants are not as aggressive down here: they only follow you for half a block insisting “madame, madame! It is free to look! Just come in, see what we have, no cost to look. Madame! MADAME!” (I am trying to work up the nerve to yell “ayi-yai-yai” and see if it would impede their aggression. I really do want to buy something, but after 6 weeks here just walking by a store evokes anxiety.)

On the other hand, electricity, internet and sometimes hot water are not so reliable. And when you request a “double bed” – kind or queen, like, for a couple – 90% of the time they push two twins together. Sometimes they don’t even push them together, but then other times it’s like a “four star” place and they at least put a king size sheet and comforter over the 2 twins.

[[Diversion: Let me qualify – this was our experience in 2 weeks of Kerala, just one state of four in Southern India, and this also didn’t apply to our stay in Mumbai, but there we stayed at Taj Majal Palace, voted “Top City Hotel in Asia.)

Our hotel in Goa has been divine, and our 5 hours at a hotel in Bangalore was something to be recommended as well.

Ramanashree California Hotel

We never intended to end up in Bengaluru, as the natives call it, but the government decided to close the Goa airport for routine maintenance, so our direct flight was cancelled, and we were rerouted to Bengalaru with a 7 hour layover. The airline offered a free lunch as compensation. The trick here is, upon arrival at Bengaluru you have to claim your bags, exit the airport, re-enter and re-check-in, and you can’t check-in at an airport in India until 2hours before departure. So we were going to be stuck outside the airport for 5 hours, and we didn’t even bother to look at how long that “free lunch” voucher was good for. We took a cab 22km to the nearest hotel with wi-fi (correction: the nearest hotel that bribed the airport information desk – Ramanashree Hotel California), paid for a room, and enjoyed 5 hours of functional internet for the first time in almost 2 weeks. ]]

Anyhow, we spent a few days at a “5 star” resort on a swamp (they use the euphemism “Lagoon”) in Kottayam, Kerala, which had zero internet access, massively incompetent service, weird outdoor bathrooms where your towels get soaked when it rains, which is not uncommon, and they gave us a packed breakfast on the day of our departure (because it was included in our plan) which was covered in ants. The room we stayed in, however, had great AC, was beautiful and spacious, had reliable electricity, and there was an amazing pool (though the pool staff won’t really serve you unless you get up to go get them; not a problem, just not very 5-star).

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We went on a great walk through the butterfly and cow preserves of the grounds, and Josh played with swings, cows and some monster lizards.

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We are glad to be in the tourist land of Goa. A few Indians warned us that Goa has been ruined by tourism, but it has all the comforting amenities and the liberal social and dress codes of the West, and we are happy to be here. It is also nice to be treated as humans instead of foreign milk cows that are expected to pay 2-10x what locals pay.

Fun Times from Goa!

-j&d

Busted Digits, Burgeoning Quads & Martial Arts with Fire

20130428-192431.jpgAfter a massively successful safari trek at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, in which we stumbled upon wild bison, elephants, and were told of how the indigent people use bamboo spikes to ascend 70 foot trees to steal honeycombs from gigantic bees’ nests, we enjoyed the entertaining Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest forms of martial arts and originating in Kerala.

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I had an arbitrary goal of cycling a continuous 70km (50 miles), but I busted my finger on a pool lounge chair, so Josh had to represent on the bicycle as we made the final descent down the mountains to the backwaters.

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Our quads and hamstrings are ginormous (relative to someone who has spent the past 10 years sitting at a computer 8 hours a day). We had our last ride in the flat lands of the backwaters of Kottayam, and were pretty impressive in the speed department (… our speed department) for a good 30km. Bottom left photo in collage below is us with some friendly locals in Munnar who asked to take a photo with us.

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After over a week of homestays I called it quits on the cultural experience, and we cancelled our rice boat reservation and headed for the hotel a day early. As far as we can tell, the rice boats are a recent river-polluting invention for tourists, and given the oppressive heat and humidity, it didn’t seem like it would be that fun to sit on the deck, and it didn’t seem that cool to sit in the AC cabin of some slow-moving water vessel that had no cultural heritage.20130428-192314.jpg


Bring on the beer, bring on the pool.

-j&d

Josh and our homestay host hiding out under a banana tree in Adimali while the rain storm passes.

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Kerala: Cycling in “God’s Own Country”

The first day of cycling was far and away the best day of this trip. It was gorgeous, our guide and driver are awesome to be with, and we are mastering mountains we would have bet money we couldn’t conquer. All the inane clichés apply, and the name the Indians have given to this land – “God’s Own Country” – is the most adequate way to describe the deeply verdant jungles, flowers and fields of tea, banana, pineapple, jack fruit, papaya, mango, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, tapioca, and too many other things to name. These plants are landscaped across the mountains of the hill country or “hill stations” as the Indians call them, and each day we ride through kilometer after kilometer of breathtaking life in the hills.

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The people mostly wave excitedly as we ride by, but some gawk, and a newspaper truck even photographed the crazy foreigners puffing up these hills (it is an offense to non-professional cyclers trudging up these hills that they aren’t considered mountains, but such are the insensitive categories of science). After a lifetime of recreational cycling (mostly to the bars on sunny spring days), we are becoming intimate for the first time with first and second gears, which we have spent consecutive hours in the past couple days. During the Buddhist retreat we practiced eating and walking meditation – a zen-ish attending to each bite and step taken. Cycling meditation is, as Josh says, absolutely requisite to make it up the hills. Yesterday the middle 20km of our trek was almost all uphill, and it requires a very singular mindset to plod along, in the tortoise-speed of first gear, unforgiving wind of the mountain (yes, I am going to call these hills mountains) after unforgiving wind.

While our muscles have adjusted surprisingly fast (not to say we aren’t sore, but we’re not dying; maybe because we go so slow), even our cycle diapers cannot prevent the punishment of unpadded seats on the underside of the pelvic bones, and we ease down gingerly after raising up onto our pedals to accommodate potholes and the occasional speed bump. We continue to be astounded by our ability to push through these rides, so far only once opting to be “transported” (loading the bikes and ourselves into the truck; we love the kind euphemism) for the final 20km, which we were told was all uphill and even steeper than the previous 20km had been. Mindfully watching the incline during this transport, we had no regrets; plus, we’d already gone more than twice as far as we’d ever ridden a bike, and more uphill kilometers than the previous 30 years of existence combined.

DHGate Cycling Underwear

DHGate Cycling Underwear

We have been at camps or homestays so far, getting a unique taste of boonie-hill-country residencies and home cooking. There is little hot water, so we fill up a bucket with the warm water and bathe out of that. I have pretty much renounced washing my hair, electing to distribute the grime of my sweaty scalp through my lovely locks with a brush in an effort to avoid dreadlocks.

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Our Luxury Tent

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Inside the Tent

But we are loving this trip even more than we hoped, and it is passing all too fast.

Till we connect again

-j&d

Views from Homestay in Adimali: Karadipara

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Indian Management & the Anticipated Cycling Adventure

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We begin our cycle tour today! Running slightly behind schedule: our hotel was supposed to have breakfast ready at 6:30, and at 7:08 Josh had tracked down the receptionist who had tracked down the security guard who had tracked down the manager (who swallowed the fly to catch the cat). The manager led Josh to a kitchen and proceeded to watch bewilderedly as Eagle-Scout Josh found bananas, a couple pieces of bread, and even scrounged up a knife to slice some pineapple.

This scene reflects a theme in India – personnel seem unable to make decisions, fix things, and generally the standard of work is baffling. We watch brick walls go up, the bricks crooked and the concrete incompletely filling holes; except for the nicest one or two hotels in a city (and forget towns) towel hooks in the bathroom are hung crooked and slightly broken, dish washing would not past the test of either of our fathers and over 50% of the clothes or blankets we inspect for purchase in the markets have stains on them. There are signs in every city for “Management” schools and degrees, but again we are curious what “management” means here, because this word certainly entails a different concept in America.

Today we ride to Thattekad and camp at Hornbill. We are somewhat nervous, as the farthest either of us has ever ridden on a bike is about 15 miles, and Houston is as flat a terrain as it gets outside of Kansas, but excitement far outweighs the anxiety: this has been one of the most anticipated segments of our journey.

Until the next internet connection😉

-j&d

Communism, Asian Novels, & the Peaceful Shores of Kerala

We made our way down to the backwaters of Kerala and have spent the past couple days in Cochin. As were the mountains in North India, so the beaches in South are a welcome reprieve from the dry heat, crowds and unforgiving cuisine of the Northern cities. Electricity and internet are inconsistent and virtually unavailable, respectively, though we are roughing it (Josh calls it 5-star camping) in the boonies. And the procurement of alcohol has become even more difficult.

But this state, which boasts 100% literacy (we are curious what the operational definition of literacy is …) and has been alternately governed by a communist (Left Democratic Front) and a democratic (United Democratic Front) party since late 1970s,  is stunningly clean, with impeccably swept streets and lacking the piles of rubble and incomplete edifices that pervade the other 5 states we’ve visited. Communism sure seems appealing …

Josh discovered an Indian best seller in the airport – The Shiva Trilogy – and has sped through the first two books in our lazy couple days of reading by the seaside. The trilogy gives a fantastical glimpse into the world of the greatest Hindu Gods, (we’ve heard there are somewhere between 3 and 33 million) as they grew from heroic humans to gain God status on Earth. Josh says their a good mix of Conan and the Hobbit, albeit on Hinduism.

I have finally had the time to indulge in some novels about Muslim culture, including Growing Up bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s wife’s autobiography; Taliban Escape! One Woman’s Journey Out of Hell, as intense a depiction of the horror side of being a Muslim woman as one could hope to find; and Love in a Headscarf, which so far seems like a depiction of the wonderful side of being a modern Muslim woman, with the peace and strength that Islam offers its believers, and the security that the family and societal structure offer. The main character anticipates the interviews with families of potential husbands as a young girl might anticipate a Quincinera. Unfortunately, I only have the sample on my kindle, and it is uncertain when we will have internet access …

Peace from the peaceful shores of Cochin-j&d