A Travellerspoint blog

Kochi

We arrived here after departing Payyanur in the morning for the seven hour train ride. Our Indian friends left later the same morning, and so we are truly on our own for the first time. Kochi is the most touristy place we have been to thus far, and white faces seem to outnumber Indians in this, the old section of town, known as Fort Kochi. On our first evening we ate a recommended place, where they seemed to dumb down and de-spice the food, especially for us westerners. We despaired of finding good food, but that turned out not to be the case.

Yesterday, we went to the old Jewish synagogue, dating from the 1500's and were surprised to find that it was Purim. No one was allowed in except Jews. It was one of the few times we did feel like the "chosen people."

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To our astonishment, there was a Lubovitcher Rabbi from Israel, who was in Kochi to help the tiny Jewish community still left celebrate both Purim and Passover. There were two elderly, Jewish ladies, one of which, Sarah, age 79, was, we had been told, the last Jew left. But Miriam was also there, and apparently there are still a handful of others, seven in all. The Rabbi also told us there was another group of 20 or 30 "black Jews" in a nearby community. Black because they look more like Indians. Also in attendance was a young Jewish man from the upper west side of Manhattan, and two young cousins, Zachary and Amy, both Americans from Denver. The Rabbi seemed quite glad to see us, even though I told him about my secular upbringing, he offered to put teffelin on me. How could I refuse? One black box went on my head, and another on my arm, held up by leather straps. Each box contains prayers, and the purpose is apparently to link head and heart together in the worship of God. We then said a few Hebrew prayers together, or rather the Rabbi said them, and I attempted to repeat them. A Bar Mitzvah, he said, after we were finished. I guess I had to come to India to get in touch with my Jewish roots. I did not tell him of my former Bar Mitzvah, which was a series of Yiddish skits written by my father, and performed by my class at the very secular Sholem Alechem Folk Shule.

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While this was going on, Nanette was chatting with Miriam and Sarah in the women's section in the back of the synagogue. They told her that the Jews of Kochi lived in peace for many years, with a cosmopolitan mix of Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus. The only group to persecute them was the Portuguese, not surprisingly, as they arrived during the time of the inquisition. It seems they were also interested in converting the local Hindus, as well as the spice trade, as evidenced by the presence of several Portuguese churches. Although they were kicked out of Kochi relatively early, they remained in the adjoining state of Goa until 1961, at which time the Indian Army finally forced them to leave. They were followed by the Dutch and then the English, who, from the late 1700's, were to rule all of India until the middle 20th century.

After my "Bar Mitzvah," we listened to the story of Purim, in Hebrew, as spoken by the Rabbi. He was accompanied by his nine year old son, who bobbed up and down, davening, while chanting with his father. He also pointed out a word here and there, that his father forgot. It was all quite charming.

Nanette with Rabbi and his family in Kochi park
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We then walked through Jew Town, formerly shops run by Jews, and now mostly owned by Kashmiris who cater to the tourist trade.

Shop in Jew Town
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Nanette with Sarah in her embroidery shop in Jew Town
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We stopped off for ginger ice cream and a cold drink, and I spent most of my time talking to Zachary, who works for the US State Department in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Zachary and cousin Amy
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I was hoping to find out how he landed the job at such a young age, so I could pass it on to the son of our good friends, Bill and Debbie, but it seems he had no special connections, and was just brilliant enough to score in the top two percent of the college grads who take the grueling series of exams and interviews that are offered to anyone. The strange thing is, he was hoping to be posted to Beijing as he speaks fluent Mandarin, but in typical bureaucratic fashion, was sent to Dushanbe because that is where they had an opening. Equally strange, his job is to distribute money for narcotics interdiction, most of which I assume, ends up in the pockets of the very corrupt government officials. Zach told me about the national sport of Buzkashi, a kind of polo, in which a galloping group of men try to pull apart a headless goat, and drag it toward a goal. It is more or less a free for all without teams, and sometimes goes on for days. Although they speak Persian in Tajikistan, as does Zach after a nine month intensive class, Russian is the lingua franca for most of the Stans. It seems like a fascinating place to visit, but Nanette has already informed me that if I am going there, it will be on my own. A bit too macho for her I'm afraid. Perhaps she can hang out in Istanbul, which seems to be the gateway for most of these countries, but first, I have to practice my survival Russian, an uphill battle at best.

As noted, we had given up finding any serious Indian food in Fort kochi, but the number one pick on Trip Advisor, Fusion, did not disappoint. In fact, I would have to say that the fish pappas, a spicy mahi-mahi with Kerala veggies, had to be one of the best meals I have enjoyed in India, and a bargain to boot. I also very much enjoyed the Jewish pepper chicken. With Syrian food on the menu as well, it was indeed, a delightful fusion.

After 9 or 10 AM, it gets quite hot here at this time of year, and so we have done things in the morning, and returned to our ac room in mid-day, before venturing out again around 4. As well as a bedroom, we have a large air conditioned living room to hang in, and although no one else is staying in the adjoining rooms, a staff person is almost always around, and it feels somewhat intrusive. The concept of personal space in India, seems to be lacking. As I am writing this, Nanette is trying to paint, and the maid, Bridgett, is constantly peering over her shoulder and asking what she is doing.

We went back to Jew Town on another day to do some jewelry shopping, and when we can stand the heat, have visited a number of tourist sites, including Vasco Da Gama Square, with its famous Chinese fishing nets. They are, "believed to have been introduced in Kochi by the Chinese explorer Zheng He, from the court of the Kubla Khan. The fishing net established itself on the Kochi shores between 1350 and 1450." (Kerala Tourism.Org).

Photo by Nanette
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We have also been to the Dutch Palace, so called because it was renovated by the Dutch, although built by the Portuguese. There were beautiful painted murals of the Ramayana on the walls. Yesterday we took the ferry to Vippin Island, which is very close by, and walked there for a bit.

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Not a lot to see, but the view back to Fort Kochi was a good one, and there were more Chinese fishing nets. We saw one being hauled up, but it looked as though there were no more than a handful of fish. Everywhere it seems, the sea is overfished and depleted. There were also nice churches.

Old Portuguese Church on Vippin
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Church detail
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Across the street from our service apartment, is the upscale Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Located in a beautiful, though recreated,19th century building, there is an outdoor bar right on the water, overlooking the ferry dock. It's a nice place to have a Kingfisher in the late afternoon, when there is still a breeze. This has become part of our daily routine, as well as dinner at Fusion, and breakfast at an art cafe, Kashi, where they make a big, filling omelette, excellent coffee, hard to find in India, and they actually serve dark bread.

Back of Brunton
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View from bar
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This being the end of our 4th day in Kochi, we will be more than happy to head out tomorrow for the hills of Munnar. It should be cooler in the Ghats, but how much so, remains to be seen. Pramila continues to call or write on an almost daily basis, and to help with travel arrangements. Although I am aways effusive with my thanks, I sometimes feel that we are imposing. She assures me that she enjoys it, and will not know what to do with all her free time when our trip is over.

Posted by jonshapiro 30.07.2014 11:02 Archived in India Tagged train_travel tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)

Valiyaparamba

We are here with Hitesh and Ruchi, on a tiny spit of a an island, with a wild, totally undeveloped beach on one side, and a wide, series of backwaters on the other. This place is really off the beaten track, and we have seen no other tourists except for a couple of German girls, who joined us on an excursion around the backwaters. The beach goes on for miles and is lined with coconut palms. The surf, while still a delicious temperature, is, if anything, rougher than Kannur. Even though the sea appears calm, near the shore, short waves crash into each other both coming and going, and produce a powerful wave sandwich with a great deal of spray. It is easy to get tossed and body slammed. Despite this, we have managed to get in and get wet every day, as the heat seems to increase almost on a daily basis.



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Usually as the day goes on, there is a fresh breeze and and the upstairs terrace provides views of the palms and the beach, as well as the backwaters. Sunsets are particularly spectacular.



Beach view
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Backwater view
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On the down side, the place itself could use a few more creature comforts, like real sheets and more towels. Also the water is almost the color of mud, and does little to clean the body after a dip in the salt water. Clothes come out dirtier when they are washed than before. We hear it is a problem with the well, but clearly they need to invest in a serious filter. Also, despite the mosquito netting, sand flies and mosquitos seem to find a way into our rooms. The food on the other hand is quite good and plentiful, but we shall make our way into town for the last night, and stay in a place with ac and better water.

A local ferry makes the trip up the main backwater route into town, and then back again a few times a day. It takes about 3 hours, but the journey gave us a chance to see how the locals travel.





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Up until a few months ago, the only way to get to this narrow island was by ferry, but now they have completed a new and substantial bridge. The backwaters have a wide assortment of birds, small fishing boats, like canoes, and areas where the locals are cultivating mussels with the aide of the government.

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After the ferry dropped us, we had about 20 minutes to stock up on various snacks, especially calicut chips. Made from tapioca, they taste like very crunchy potato chips. We have been enjoying them every night with beer we brought from Payannur. Finding and purchasing booze in Kerala is quite a chore. When we arrived in town a few days ago with our driver, it took about 15 minutes to find the only liquor store, which was up three flights of stairs and unsigned. They would only sell us five beers, but Hitesh and our driver were there, so we managed to purchase a case, which we have made short work of in these hot, sticky nights.

Yesterday we hired a boat to take us on a tour of more of the backwaters. It started with the engine failing. After half an hour or so, and with the help of the boat owner, our somewhat hapless drivers finally got it started.

Boat driver
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We toured around, but because of the shallowness of some of the narrow backwaters, they were reluctant to proceed too far. It was unfortunate, as that is part of the reason we hired the boat in the first place. Nevertheless, it was still an enjoyable ride.

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Earlier in the day, we walked down the island to check out another hotel, and see where the road ended. More than half a mile past the road, it was nothing to rave about. It was, however, interesting to see the villagers living simply in their thatched and concrete houses, coconut shells piled high. Everyone seemed quite friendly, and although they are not that used to foreigners, they seemed happy to see us. Perhaps that was why they were happy to see us. Last evening, an older woman was walking along the beach with a child, who I assume was her granddaughter. She was more than happy to pose for a picture.

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Tomorrow Hitesh and Ruchi head back to Delhi, and we shall go on to Kochi. They have have made excellent traveling companions, and we shall miss them. Although not everyday has been entirely comfortable, overall things have been pretty relaxed, and I feel the sense of gratitude that I usually do, when I have the opportunity to travel to out of the way places. At home it is hard to sit still, but I seem to be able to do this more easily on the road, in part because the traveling life is simpler, and there are fewer things that we have to attend to.

Pramila continues to help us with various travel arrangements from her home in Mumbai. She calls most everyday, and we have taken to calling her mom, even though we are almost twice her age.

Posted by jonshapiro 25.07.2014 13:02 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches Comments (4)

Kalpetta, India

We are now in the hill town of Kalpetta, near Wayanad National Park. Hitesh and Ruchi, who we also met in Ladakh and last saw in Delhi six years ago, met us here. When they arrived, it felt as though no time had passed, and we had the same instant connection that we felt the first time. Now in their late 30's , they looked the same, and they felt the same about us.

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The guest house here has just two adjoining rooms with a sheltered terrace surrounded by tropical vegetation. It is located just far enough off the main drag of Kalpetta to be quiet and peaceful, except for the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our host Mary, a Christian, is taking good care of us and is obviously well educated, as is her son Sunil, who spent 20 years living near Toronto. This time of year, Wayanad doesn't get much rain, although we have had a few showers. There is still a lot of green, but plants and trees look a little parched. It is also much hotter than I expected, quite different than the hill towns in Malaysia. Nights are fine, but afternoons get very warm.

On the first day we hired a car to take us around to some of the local sites. The first and most interesting place was a bamboo factory. It was run by an NGO, and there were several Nigerians studying building techniques with bamboo, which is also plentiful in their own country. Just by accident, we learned that this same NGO was building a nearby eco-resort, also out of bamboo. As it turned out, we had heard about this place from Henry, the Swiss architect, who was staying next to us on Thottada Beach. We had wanted to visit, and found it quite by accident. Though incomplete, a few of the basic structures were in place, which gave us a good idea of how it will eventually look.

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There is also a separate house, where the architects are currently living. It is quite an unusual design, looking vaguely like a Swiss A-frame with a Chinese twist. It is built directly over a small pond to keep the place cool in the tropical heat . Henry's idea.

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From there, we went to the "Wonder Caves," which didn't quite live up to its name. It is privately owned, and the proprietor more or less insisted on showing us every rock and plant on the mountainside, until we persuaded him to speed it up, and finally got to the top of a rocky outcropping with a fine view of the valley below.

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Then we rode 20K or so to a waterfall, which, despite the 1k walk to get there and the admissions charge, the place was packed with Indian families. It was, after all, a Saturday. Due to the crowds whooping and hollering, and most likely peeing in the water, the swimming did not seem inviting. It was a very Indian scene, with men in singlets and underwear, and women in full saris, standing or attempting to swim in a few pools of water underneath the falls.

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The drive back through tea plantations with Chambra Peak in the distance was the highlight of the day. The tea plantations have a different feel than those in Thailand and Malaysia, with their orderly rows. Here they are somewhat more chaotic, and the plants different shapes. Perhaps this is a statement about the Indian temperament, or maybe it is just because they grow different varieties of tea. Or both?

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Kalpetta is not a particularly attractive town, with the usual run down shops and potholed streets, along with a large assortment of auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks, by another name, as well as Tata trucks.

Even with the incorrect spelling, I couldn't resist this sign of an umbrella shop
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There are also hammer and sickle banners flying about in various spots, representative of the Communist Party, although they are no longer in power. There is clearly poverty here, but most everyone has enough to eat, and there are few beggars on the streets.

CP parade outside of town
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Yesterday we attempted a climb of Chandra, at 2200 hundred meters, the highest peak in this part of the Western Ghats. Unfortunately, we were told we could not go beyond the small heart shaped lake about half way up. We tried to sneak past the guards on two different occasions, but they caught us each time, after we got a little way up the treeless ridge line. Very visible I'm afraid. We were told that there are Naxalite terrorists higher up on the peak. This seemed completely absurd to all of us. Most likely someone got hurt higher on the mountain, and the local officials got blamed. They are obviously unprepared to launch any kind of rescue. They also told us not to go into the forest. Wild elephants might attack us.

Elephant forest in foreground, Chambra ridgeline in back
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While there were some other people around, it was still enjoyable to hang out by the small lake and dip our feet in, until we were told that that too was not permitted. It seems they are quite big on rules here in Wayanad. Whatever happened to good old chaotic India?

Hitesh wading in the pond
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The views were impressive, and the hour climb with maybe 500 meters of vert, gave us our first bit of exercise in two weeks.

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Today we decided to forgo the car, and set out across a tea plantation to see what was there, and to look for a small stream that both Mary and Sunil had mentioned. We walked up and up on a narrow road, getting hotter by the moment, but unfortunately the only stream we could find was barely a trickle at the edge of the forest. On the way back, we saw these school kids out on recess, and then managed to snag a tuk-tuk about half way down, to avoid some of the long walk back into town.

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The only liquor store in town is tucked away in a small alley, in a place we would never have found on our own. There was a long line, and of course, no women, but luckily we were able to send Nanette and Ruchi to the front of the line, simply because they were female. We have spent most nights imbibing beers, and gin with sprite, since there is no tonic available, and have discussed just about everything from politics to babies. One night we enjoyed an excellent tandori dinner in town, and last night Mary cooked a great meal with various local specialties, including a cucumber, coconut curry whose name I can't recall.

At the moment, I am sitting out on our terrace, and a nearby Hindu temple is playing some Hindi, or more likely Malayalam music (the language of Kerala), in an apparent attempt to one up the mosque. Our white noise machine has proved quite handy at night, while they are battling it out. Thank you Bill and Suzanne for this. We never leave home without it. Tomorrow we head out on a long car ride through the mountains and back to the Arabian Sea, to an area of northern backwaters, less touristy we are told than Alleppey, which is further south.

Now this last pic could very well turn out to be a collector's item. Somehow, when I uploaded the photo to my tablet from the camera, David Hasselhof, from Bay Watch fame, showed up in the background. We, of course, had no idea who he was, but later learned that it was some kind of April Fool's prank. Several photos were corrupted, but luckily I only uploaded a few on that particularly day.

Nanette, Ruchi, and yup, you guessed it, David Hasselhof
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Posted by jonshapiro 22.07.2014 08:50 Archived in India Tagged waterfalls mountains people Comments (2)

Theyyam in Northern Kerala

Last night we awoke at 3 AM to attend a Theyyam, a local religious ceremony, native to this area of northern Kerala. There are many different kinds of Theyyam's, and each one held in a different community is somewhat unique. The custom of ritual worship appears to go back thousands of years. It is rather difficult to figure out the meaning , at least for outsiders, but the one we attended seemed to have aspects related to fertility, coming of age, and even house warming.

Wikipedia says the following:

It can be said that all the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal, and religious worship has widened the stream of the Theyyam cult, where "even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect,"[2] and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of millions. For instance, the cult of Bhagawathi, the Mother Goddesses, had and still has, an important place in Theyyam. Besides this, the practices of spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, masathi-worship, tree-worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease, and the worship of Graamadevataa, (Village-Deity) are included in the main stream of the Theyyam cult. Along with these Gods and Goddesses, there exist innumerable folk Gods and Goddesses. Most of these Goddesses are known as Bhagavathy (the Mother-Goddess that is the Divine and United form of the three principal Goddesses namely, Brahmani (Saraswati), Vaishnavi (Lakshmi), and Shivani (Durga).

Unfortunately, our driver showed up almost an hour late. Just when we had given up and gone back to bed, the other couple who was going with us knocked on our door to tell us he was here. We piled into his Tata Nano, a lot like a smart car, but cheaper, and we drove the 15K over very pot holed roads to the village where the ceremony was taking place. There were several hundred onlookers, men, women, and children, but we appeared to be the only foreigners This was clearly the real deal, and not something being done for the benefit of tourists.

It seemed we were not that late, as the first of three avatar Gods was being fitted out with an enormous headdress and face mask just as we arrived. After a short while, he began to dance around, accompanied by a cadre of furious drummers, conch shell blowers, as well as the occasional blast of what sounded like a renaissance sackbut (an elongated trumpet).


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After a time, he was joined by some other man, also with an enormous headdress, rather large artificial breasts, and a face mask with several flaming torches set about three feet from his face and attached somehow to his costume. His headdress was also set aflame in various places. There was more drumming while he went around blessing everyone with yellow powder.

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At odd moments, there were earth shaking booms of what sounded like cherry bombs, and then some actual fireworks.

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A young teenage boy was then dressed in palm leaves and face mask. He danced to even more rapid drumming, and proceeded to gather the village elders, all men of course, and then blessed each one in turn. One of them became so emotional over this that he started to cry. Perhaps this was the boy's father?

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After a time, the teenager was fitted out with even longer palm leaves which covered most of his body. In the meantime, a bonfire had been started in the back, and by now, had died down to a large and very hot bed of coals. After much preparation and blessings by the head Brahmin, he was led back to the coals and placed on top of them face up, but head resting on the coals. He was there for several minutes until his palm leaves started to catch fire, at which time he was lifted out and the flames tamped down, although his head and back were still smoking This happened repeatedly, perhaps a half dozen times. This was clearly the culmination of the ceremony.

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Several hours had gone by since we arrived, and by now it was 8 AM and the sun was fully out. Finally, not wanting to miss breakfast back at the guesthouse, we decided to leave, although it was unclear whether or not the boy was finished with his ordeal.

It was quite an evening.

Posted by jonshapiro 19.07.2014 09:11 Archived in India Tagged people Comments (5)

Thottada Beach, Kannur (Kerala, India)

Blue Mermaid

We have now been at this lovely beach resort for six days. Pramila, our friend and caretaker extraordinaire, left yesterday to return to Mumbai. The beach itself is completely undeveloped, although there are several guest houses that line an adjacent small road. There is clearly some house building going on up the hill, and I shudder to think of what the next ten years will bring. Isn't that always the case with deserted beaches. The water is a perfect temperature, just cool enough to be refreshing, although the undertow and surf can be rough. The lack of shade and the scorching sun tend to restrict our beach time to early mornings and late afternoons.


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Tapping tree for palm wine, photo by Nanette
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There have been a number of interesting guests staying here, at Blue Mermaid.



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View from our terrace
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One of the more interesting couples live in Scotland. They have spent the better part of their retirement, 26 years ago, on the road. The first three years of which, they didn't return at all, except for their daughter's wedding. They are really intrepid types, always taking local transport, even carrying their own gear up to Everest base camp. Now they have paired their luggage down to a mere 6 kilos each, roughly two changes of clothes. I thought they were ten years older than we were, but as it turns out they are about the same age.

Another younger British woman, staying here with her husband, used to work for the UN in Sudan, and is now a development consultant with plans to go to Afghanistan.

Staying right next to us is Henry, a Swiss gentlemen our age, who runs a cross-cultural architectural firm in Bangalore. He has Swiss students do an internship with him in India, and in turn, sends Indian students to do the same in Switzerland. One of his major projects is building an eco-resort for a non-profit NGO in the hills of Wayanad. He is here to visit a factory in Kannur that makes fabric, some of which he is hoping to use with this project. He designs the interiors as well as the exteriors of the buildings. From his description, the place sounds fascinating, and as we are headed to Wayanad from here, perhaps we will stop by.

Today, an American family showed up with two young kids. They have been traveling for six months with plans to continue for another six. Being here, is once again a reminder that there are lots of folks doing the same things that we have been up to. Sometimes this is easy to forgot when we are home.

There is indeed, not a lot to do here, and we spend our time lazing about, finding shade where we can, talking to the other guests and to Pramila, when she was here. This is punctuated by two extended dips in the Arabian Sea. The south Indian food, largely vegetarian, is quite good, and our host, Indu, most hospitable. She made us feel at home.


Indu, her husband, and lovely daughter
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Posted by jonshapiro 16.07.2014 07:31 Archived in India Tagged beaches people Comments (2)

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