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Posts Tagged ‘beach’

Kerala

In Kerala you can almost feel the world creaking to a halt and demanding that you stop along with it. Whether standing to watch waves crash against a cliff or gazing into the hazy distance of the backwaters, all you can do is just stand still and watch as the beauty of the world happens right in front you, slowly but deliberately.

The view from our hotel in Varkala

After running around Sri Lanka, arriving on the beach in Varkala was a welcome change. I’m not normally a person who likes vacationing on beaches, but Varkala was a little moment of perfection.

Fishermen with their nets in Varkala

We were staying on Odayam beach, away from the tourist-hub on the cliff and a place where fisherman outnumbered tourists.  I found myself watching them, wondering what they must think of this recent foreign infiltration of their beaches. They didn’t seem fazed – some fisherman sat carefully carving and piecing together oars, while others tied up fishing line.  The small bungalows and boutique hotels that had started to pop up around them didn’t change the work they had clearly been doing for generations.

We spent the day in the most relaxing of fashions – staring at the sea, swimming in the sea, and eating.

Incredible huge prawns

The fisherman certainly weren’t for show – at night when you stroll along Kerala’s cliff-front hub (if you walk a little bit off course you’ll find yourself in a straight long drop down into the sea), you can survey the wares at each restaurant because they keep the seafood right out front. You can make a decision based on what you see – does that marlin look fresh to you? How about this barracuda at the restaurant over here? Or how about the huge tiger prawns that look more like lobsters? You pick your food after looking at it up close and then the price haggling begins. It’s quite a way to start a dining experience before you’ve even sat down.

It was a much-needed respite from reality. Swimming in the waves and having a cup of tea looking out at the horizon it felt a little bit like we had found our own secret place in the world. I would have been sorry to go except that I was even more intrigued by Kerala’s more famous attraction: the backwaters.

View of the backwaters from the tip of our boat

Having read Arundhati Roy’s the God of Small things many years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the depth and beauty of her descriptions of the Keralan backwaters. I had always wanted to languidly cruise through the canals and jungles I’d pictured in my mind. I worried that the proliferation of backwater tours and houseboats might ruin the experience – but I was ready to take the chance.

We boarded our very own houseboat early in the day and began slowly making our way along the backwaters. The beauty of this experience is that there is literally nothing to do but sit and gawk at the beauty of it all. As the boat cruised along we attempted to read or have conversations, but they continually got interrupted by someone saying, “Oh wait, but look at THAT”. And the ‘that’ they were usually pointing at was a far-reaching landscape.

A view of the backwaters as the sun goes down

The backwaters look like something you’d only see in a movie that has an other-worldly setting. Small plants grow up in the middle of each canal or lake, as though they are rooted only in water. We found ourselves first in an expansive lake with palm trees and bird-filled paddies in the distances and then later in smaller canals, bordered on either side by a jungle of trees growing straight from the water.

A woman doing laundry in her backwater-adjacent home

In many of these canals entire villages flourished, their pace of life dictated by the narrow strips of land they lived on and the water-buses that ferried them and their neighbors around. Like the Varkala fishermen, I wondered how odd it must be for these people living this rural, water-logged existence to see the ever-growing stream of boats with white people staring back at the beauty of their lives. But our captain seemed to think (however biased he must have been) that the growth in the industry was positive, since many of these people now were able to get higher-paying jobs in tourism.

A typical houseboat on the water

It was a bizarre experience, sleeping on a boat while mostly trying to avoid the onslaught of mosquitos that had come as night fell. But enjoying breakfast and a cup of tea in the morning light was really priceless. I could understand why the place had inspired such vivid prose from Roy.

We left the boat and headed for our last stop – Kochi, an old Portuguese colony at Kerala’s northern end. It was a sudden change from the rural waters, but it was made all the more easy after being welcomed at Sui House, a 3-room bed-and-breakfast run by a wonderful family who also specializes in selling antiques (so you can imagine how beautiful the furniture was). After an explanation of the sights to see we went exploring.

The beautiful Sui House

The main attraction, for us at least, in Kochi was the city’s 16th century Paradesi synagogue (The oldest in the ‘Commonwealth,’).

Inside the synagogue, courtesy of Creative Commons since no photos were allowed

It was a strange sight seeing a colonial-era Jewish house of worship in the middle of an Indian town, but it was beautiful. It was made funny by the fact that everyone calls the area where the synagogue is located, “Jew Town.” I guess that would explain why the owner of the hotel had no problem asking, “Are you Jew?” The population has dwindled (it’s estimated less than 20 Jews still live in Kochi) but enough people have stayed along to make sure the synagogue remains – and it was really beautiful. Kochi is the kind of city you imagine colonial India to be – still as crazy as ever, but with the architectural and culinary flourishes left over from a past era. It was a fitting way to end our trip.

As we left Kerala behind to go back to Mumbai I couldn’t help but try to spend my last moments soaking it all in, because that to me was the best of Kerala: taking the beauty from the beaches to the city and enjoying it at the pace Keralans seem to demand from its visitors. I hope I can someday make my way back to stand still and enjoy once again.

(Also – there are a few new signs added from this trip to the Amazing Signage tab at the top, if anyone was hoping for more!)

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I’m probably a bad patriot for deliberately wanting to leave my new city because my President was coming for a visit. But amidst road closures, traffic and increased security – along with a 2 day vacation for Daniel because of Diwali – we decided to high-tail it out of Mumbai for a relaxing weekend in Goa.

I had heard a lot of different things about Goa, all seemingly contradictory: Some derided it as a crowded over-hyped place for hippies and backpackers; others gleefully declared it Mumbai’s Hamptons. I was pleasantly surprised to find that if you stayed in the right places, Goa could be neither. Instead for me it was a relaxing blend of tropical paradise and historical oddity.

One of the Siolim House rooms

On the advice of numerous friends we stayed at Siolim House – a 17th century Portuguese mansion that had been restored as a labor of love by an Indian private equity manager. Siolim House is off the beaten track – it’s situated on a small lane in a tiny village that’s a ways away from the beach, but it means no other tourists are around. You sort of feel like you’re staying at a friend’s very nice country house (shouldn’t we all have friends like that?).

I’m ususally a sucker for historical houses anyway, but this one really was something to see. Our room made me feel like we could really get a sense of what it must have been like to live in colonial India – except we still were able to have running water and the use of a fan.

Siolim House lounge

We spent the next few days driving between the various beaches and the sights of Goa. It’s a funny place to tourist-watch – I’ve never seen so many people trying to embody the Goa fantasy life. White people with dreadlocks and kurtas made their way around on scooters along treacherous windy paths while getting honked at for going too slowly. European tourists happily paid 50 rupees for a fresh coconut without negotiating and apparently without considering that the coconuts grew on trees right in front of them and therefore shouldn’t be that expensive. A lot of the people we spoke with were spending up to two weeks in Goa – deciding that the rest of India would have to wait, since they were only in the mood for their tropical plans. I kept wondering what the local people must think of this specific type of tourist that wants to live the ‘chill’ life in India. Then again, what must they have thought of us? I think sometimes we’re naive to assume that we embarrass ourselves less just because we happen to have lived in Mumbai for a few months.

But Goa does live up to its hype. We went to one of the quieter beaches, in Mandrem, and it really was a new view of India I hadn’t been privy to in all my time on Mumbai’s sullied and crowded beaches. Hills gave way to white sandy beaches and palm trees. Locals made use of the tourists by selling us fresh-caught fish and prawns. It was hard to think of a better place to spend a day.

Inside of Bom Jesus church

As a history buff I also enjoyed Old Goa – which apparently a lot of beach travelers give a miss. It was striking to see 17th century grand churches in India. I watched an Indian Christian wedding- white dress and all – and I was struck by how odd it seemed in a country that seemed to promote every color but white in their average wedding. I certainly felt like I was in some remote part of forgotten Europe. The whole setting reminded me of some of the churches I’d gone to in Amalfi – a bit forgotten with the paint peeling off, but still glorious in their size and decorations.

I was also amused to see the ‘remains’ of St Francis Xavier. It was a bit of an inside joke for me – I was born in a hospital called St Francis Xavier hospital, and oddly enough I am the only person in my family who was born there. So I thought it was sort of fitting that I got to witness his bizarre mummified self (I would say I got to see him in the flesh, but that might be too terrible a pun).

At any rate, when it was time to board our plane Sunday night, I couldn’t help but wish I was able to spend more time in the slow-moving Indian state that seemed to belong to many cultures at once. And for a moment, the wish was granted: our flight out was delayed – a result of President Obama’s closure of the Mumbai airport for a full forty-five minutes. I guess we couldn’t avoid America even in Goa. But it certainly had been nice to try for a little while.

(I also found some great signs in Goa, so I’ve added a few to the slide show on the signs tab)

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I’ve been here long enough that I take a lot of India’s quirkiness for granted at this point. I hate that I’ve become a bit used to some of the things that used to wow me. But it was nothing that a horse-drawn amphibious carriage couldn’t fix.

Daniel’s week had consisted of bouncing from one city across India to the next for work without getting much sleep. Mine had continued to go downhill: Bank of America forgot I lived in India and shut off my card; my internet stopped working again; my driver and housekeeper decided they hated each other for a little while and wanted to yell about it (long story…). So on Friday Daniel announced that we both needed some time to ourselves to just relax. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We decided to go to Alibaug, which is a beach town about two and a half hours outside of Mumbai. I loved driving out – its calming to watch as the crazy dirty chaos of Mumbai turns into quiet high-rises and then morphs into craggy hills, as though one of the world’s major cities wasn’t just a stones throw away. We got to the hotel and spent the first day just zoning out- reading, eating and sitting were the main criteria.

But for the second day in Alibaug we wanted to experience the beach and the Kolaba fort, an 18th century fort on an island about a kilometer from the beach. It was a gray and misty day but, as always, it was still plenty hot. And as we walked up towards the pier, I noticed there was something a little different about this particular beach.

Alibaug Beach with Kolaba Fort in the distance

The tide was out so far that half of the beach was just wet sand. The fort stood in the distance with water surrounding it, but we watched as people waded their way up to it. The water was so low that all you needed to do was hike your pants up and start walking for about half an hour from the beach and you’d reach it – no swimming required

But there was an even more curious spectacle to take in as we got to the beach’s edge. Strangely rigged horse-drawn carriages were at the ready to take tourists across the shallow shores. Instead of regular wheels they had the kinds you would normally see on a dune buggy. They were equipped for sand, water and the weight of whatever number of people wanted to cram into their chariot.

We came up to one and asked the driver how much. “Teen-saw”, he responded. 300 rupees, or a little less than $7. This was not going to be like the $50 carriages in Central Park. I still had to haggle, just to save myself a little respect.

The view from our horse

“Doe-saw?” I replied (200). The man nodded and waved us in. I realized that while our carriage ride was going to be less than $5, based on his easy acceptance of my offer, I probably was overpaying by at least half.

With that, we trotted off. It seemed like we were in some weird dream sequence. We looked out onto gray skies and black sand on our way to an eroding imposing structure in the distance – I felt like a character in a fairy tale. The horse hit the water and kept going. The carriage – all wood and metal, with paint flaking off every plank – teetered and tottered but we got there eventually. Our transport waited and we went for a stroll around the abandoned fort.

Kolaba Fort

Daniel commented that it was easy to imagine this place as it must have been. It was true – there weren’t a lot of people around and perhaps it was the clouds that darkened everything but it seemed like we were in some sort of abandoned piece of history.

Daniel and our chariot

We made our way back and I watched as ‘land’ started coming closer and closer. Our horses decided to make a sprint for it at the end. The whole thing was fun and weird all at the same time. And it had cost us around $4.50. Only in India. I’m glad we got away to be reminded that there’s so much more we can continue to be amazed by.

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So a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim stood around talking about Hindus…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was just a regular day in our household. On this occasion, Nisha and our driver (who are Muslim and Christian, respectively) were trying to explain to me why I should not participate in Ganesh Visarjan, the end of the Ganpati celebrations where millions of people crowd Mumbai’s beaches to immerse their statues of the god Ganesh into the water.

The Ganpati crowd at Juhu beach

“You will not want to go there ma’am,” our driver said, “It will be all crowds and drunk people.”
Nisha concurred, “People there are crazy, you don’t know what can happen.”

I didn’t want to mention to Nisha that this was what the driver had said to me about going to Muhammad Ali Rd during her holiday of Ramzan.

I spoke to my friend D (who is a Jain Indian raised in America but has a lot of family in Bombay) — she said everyone was telling her not to go as well. “They all think unless we have a rooftop to watch from we shouldn’t go – it’ll be too crazy and dirty.”

This is the funny thing about Bombay – everyone lives in harmony until you start talking about people of a different caste or religion. Then suddenly everyone of the opposing caste or religion is a drunk dirty lout.

I, however, was not going to miss Ganesh Visarjan. It’s one of the most exciting days in Mumbai and I wanted to see it for myself. Six million people take 200,000 statues of the god Ganesh to Mumbai’s various beaches and immerse him in the water – setting him on a journey and supposedly taking the misfortunes of his followers away with him. All week I’d seen the Ganesh statues, large and small, with people dancing throughout the streets. And I wanted to watch as the festival came to its glorious end.

Rolling Ganesh towards the sea

So after a bit of planning we decided to go to Juhu beach – it’s not too far from Bandra and its one of the less crowded areas. When I say less crowded this just means there were probably tens of thousands of people crowding the beach instead of potentially hundreds of thousands. There are 27 immersion spots throughout Mumbai, but the ones in South Bombay are the most crowded. We figured it would be best to stay close to home and out of the massive crowds.

A few friends and I went to a bar on the beach and grabbed a table early. The real festivities start at night so by 3pm when we arrived there were just a smattering of people with their idols. But as the sun got lower more and more and more people began to show up with increasingly large Ganesh statues.

The Ganesh that we followed

Imagine looking out and seeing a sea of people going from the end of the beach all the way up to the water. Everyone is excited, many people are singing, and every so often you start to see a large portion of the crowd begin to move like one, with a big Ganesh in the middle as they all head towards the sea. You can watch the people and the Ganesh until it suddenly sinks and cheers go out. But when you look somewhere else the same thing is happening all over again.

D and I decided we wanted to follow a Ganesh from beginning to end. So we spotted a big one, left our table, and went out to join in. The crowd surrounding it was huge. The Ganesh was taller than any man and everyone was surrounding it, singing, and celebrating. They then lifted our Ganesh onto a cart (slowly but surely) and began to wheel it toward the sea with everyone still singing and celebrating. We ran with it, joining in and letting ourselves get caught up in the moment.

Our Ganesh going out to sea

I was so caught up I didn’t realize I’d gone right into the water up to my thigh. I turned around and saw D had not followed me – Mumbai’s beaches are notoriously dirty. Oil and other unpleasantries mix to create a blackened version of the sea. With the many Ganesh statues the water becomes an even more dangerous place (There are many people here who are understandably against Ganpati because of the horrible implications of thousands of plaster and chemically painted statues being left at the sea floor). I stepped back, ignored my dirty legs and watched as our Ganesh was taken out to sea. And then, in and instant, he was gone. He had gone to the bottom of the ocean and everyone was cheering. We’d been allowed to share in this one group’s moment of their Ganpati and we felt it was ours too (To watch a video of ‘our’ Ganesh and his journey, see below).

The crowd growing as night falls on Juhu beach

We went back to the bar, exhilarated and excited. We stayed awhile longer, watching the crowd swell more and more as time went on. We left after it got dark, but for most real celebrants the night was just beginning. As we drove home, one side of the road was closed as thousands of people were in their own processions with their own Ganesh, making their way towards the sea.

I asked our driver how his night was. “I hadn’t seen the Ganesh immersion since I was a boy. I always avoid it now. But you know, it was really fun to see it.” Yes it truly was.

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