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We left Munnar by private car a day early, and came here to Madurai, a bustling, hot, typical Indian city, with cars honking, buses belching black smoke, and plenty of garbage.



Our hotel, JC Residency, is a bit of an oasis. Cool, clean, nice room, and nice pool, though also in typical Indian fashion, no place to lounge around in the shade. The only staff person who seemed to know what he was doing was Sam, so we asked for him as often as possible when we needed information about the town.

The Menakshee temple did not disappoint. It is a huge complex,dedicated to Parvati (Menakshee by another name) and Shiva, her consort. Reports about it age vary widely, from the 6th through the 15th century, although at some point it was destroyed by the ruling Muslims and then rebuilt. It has 12 large towers, gopurams, full of Hindu Gods standing on top of each other, painted in bright colors, with an assortment of demons as well. Each tower is different from the next, and the overcrowding of figures is very much like the rest of this crowded and sometimes overwhelming country. Luckily, we got there in the morning when it was relatively cool and uncrowded.





They did not however, let us bring our camera, though we could use our cell phone to take pics. Something about security. We were also not allowed, as non Hindus, to go into the inner sanctums.

We did manage to get in here

All in all, we spent about two hours, listening to the recorded chanting, and gazing up at the towers. Pigeons flew around the gopurams in widening circles, perched on the various Gods and demons, and of course, shitting on them. There were also many lingams, yakshis, yoginis, and other statues scattered about, and in the on site museum.

Indian women gazing up at Temple

We returned to spend most of the rest of the day lazing about the pool. Just too hot to do anything else. The following day we went to see the Gandhi museum, which was somewhat interesting and the palace, which was not. In the afternoon we were back at the pool where Nanette started chatting with an Indian- American family now living in Madison, Wisconsin. Interestingly, Josephine's husband, was a surgical resident, as is our daughter, and made the switch to interventional radiology. She was visiting her mother Rosalyn, with her very cute 3 year old, Annabelle. They have English names because they are Christians, which seems to be the trend here, as they were originally named by the Portuguese when they were converted hundreds of years ago. Now that I reflect on it, they should all have Portuguese names.

It wasn't long before Rosalyn invited us over for dinner the next night, and we promptly said yes.

It was a long tuk-tuk ride to their modest house on the other side of town.


Stanley, her husband, was there, as well as their youngest son, who is almost finished with his accounting degree. Two other sons, one of which is married to Josephine, are still in the states. Both Stanley and his wife lived in Chicago for a while, but decided they liked the lifestyle in India, and so returned several years ago. Now they are both retired. They made a number of local dishes for us including avial, dosas,chappattis, chicken curry, appum, and several others whose names I can't remember, and although there was one servant helping in the kitchen, Rosalyn, it seemed, did most of the cooking. We ate at a small table, with Stanley, while the women, as well as younger brother served us, much like in the Burmese families in the US, who we tutor in English. Over dinner, we chatted with them about their lives in India as well as the US. Josephine's marriage was arranged, and she really didn't get to meet her husband until shortly before moving to the US. He was accepted into a residency program in Madison after finishing medical school in India. She was 24 at the time. Right now, she appears to enjoy life in the states, especially Madison, although her husband is just about finished, and they will move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this summer, because he has a job there. Prior to her marriage, she had trained as a dentist in India, but has not practiced in the US. Annabelle takes up most of her time, although she did work as a dental technician for a few years in Madison. Everyone was very gracious towards us and it was a highly pleasurable way to end our time in Madurai.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:43 Archived in India Tagged people tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)


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."


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.


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

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

Nanette with Sarah in her embroidery shop in Jew Town

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

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

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.


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

Church detail

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

View from bar

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 11:02 Archived in India Tagged train_travel tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (4)

Southern India & Teaching in the Himalayan Culture School

Book Six: Bombay/Mumbai

Arrived in Mumbai after an uneventful flight from Newark. This followed an aborted attempt to get to California for a wedding, when our flight was cancelled and others totally booked. Our friend Pramila, who has been so helpful in planning this entire trip, has kept us busy more or less non-stop, here in her home town. Nanette met her seven years ago on a monastery tour in Ladakh, the last time we were in India. On this trip, we decided to focus on the south, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, with a side trip to Sri Lanka.


After a night's sleep near the airport, we went on a tour of Mumbai's largest slum, Dharavi. It was led by a student who continues to live in the slum, while he attends college. The company he works for, Be the Local, was started and continues to be run by another student from the slum. So now, this company provides a part time income for students from Dharavi, as it attempts to create a different impression of slum life. They want to show that the slum is not just a place of lazy drug dealers, and that it is in fact, a relatively safe place of industrial and hard working people, who often work together to eek out a living, mostly by recycling plastic, cardboard, aluminum, and anything else that others throw away. We walked around for a couple of hours, and viewed the various recycling industries taking place in Dharavi. Indeed, it did not seem especially dangerous, though it was obviously ramshackle and dirty. Most everyone we saw seemed hard at work sorting plastic, grinding it up, and then packing it for shipping to be reused in some other capacity. Cardboard was also being recycled, and aluminum cans and scrap were being melted down into ingots, to be sold to others outside the slum. The tour certainly did create a different impression than I got from reading Katherine Boo's Book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, though it was about a different Mumbai slum. Of course, the tour provided a superficial view, but if the guide's intent was to get people to question their preconceived notions of slum life, he did a good job.

When Pramila suggested a slum tour, we were initially reluctant, because it seemed exploitive, and kind of weird, almost voyeuristic. But because of the nature of the company, it did not feel that way. Right now, one of the main issues that the residents of Dharavi are dealing with, is that the city wants the valuable land that houses the shacks and business of the slum dwellers. Much of it is located in what is now prime property, and Mumbai's prices are among the highest in the world. At any rate, the politicians are trying to arrange a land swap. They will provide tiny, but new apartments in a small section of the slum, in exchange for the residents to give up a significant percentage of the land they have been squatting on for generations. There is resistance to this, so it will be interesting to see how things play out. In the end, I suspect the residents will have no choice, and will have to strike a deal of some sort.

Overall Mumbai, despite its larger size, seems less crazy and harried than Delhi. Yes there are beggars, and clearly there are enormous slums, but somehow, despite the constant honking and the traffic, it is a less overwhelming place than Delhi. I'm sure, the fact that we had Pramila as a guide obviously had something to do with facilitating our transition, but even taking that into account, it feels easier here. Somehow there is a greater sense of personal space, and certainly less of the constant harassment that we felt in north India.

On another day, we took the boat out to Elephanta Island, about an hour's ride through the harbor of Bom Bay, so named by the Portuguese, because it was a good bay and a good port. Elephanta, according to our knowledgeable guide,a university professor, was first started as a cave temple by Buddhist monks some time around the 7th century. Not long after, Buddhism more or less died out, and and the caves on the island were taken up by Hindus, or Shivites, as they are called here, worshippers of Shiva. They proceeded to carve detailed, three dimensional images of various incarnations of Shiva, out of the hard, basalt rock. More than a 1000 years later, these statues continue to impress with their detail and sense of movement conveyed through the stone. The Portuguese did their damnedest to destroy many of the statues by using them for target practice, but large parts remain intact.



We learned that there is a division between north and south India. While both Hindus, the Dravidians were a different race than the northern Aryans, and Shiva apparently figures more prominently in their style of worship than he does in the north. There are other differences as well. The Dravidians consider themselves the true and original Indians, while northerners are seen as more recent interlopers. Not surprisingly, this is a a matter of some dispute. What is true, is that the Mughals never made it to far southern India (south of Mumbai), which was ruled by the Cholas for hundreds of years.

After returning from Elephanta we had a fabulous lunch of thali, the south Indian version of rijstaffel, consisting of numerous small plates of incredible tasty vegetables, rice, roti and paratha. After stuffing ourselves, we made our way to the Modern Art Museum, which, as in China, seemed to be more or less permanently closed. We did manage to find one of the largest art galleries in town, where I proceeded to make fun of much of the art, seemingly every other piece having been named best this or best that in the show. My favorite was a painting of a chair that won for best portrait, even though no portrait could be seen. Perhaps that was the point.

Walking on, we considered a stop at the British Museum, aka Prince of Wales Museum, aka, some long Indian name that I cannot spell or pronounce, but we were tired at this point. I suggested a drink at the Taj, one of the fanciest hotels in town, built by Papa Tata, (who I now know was actually a Parsi), later partly blown up by terrorists in 2006, and then more or less rebuilt to the original specifications to its previous magnificence, except that is, for a rather tacky, high rise, new wing. Anyway, we managed to get ourselves kicked out of several lounge areas after being asked for our room number, and not quite having the balls to lie about it. We ended up in the Sea Lounge, open to the public, and managed to get a booth overlooking the harbor. There we whiled away a couple of hours drinking gin and tonics, beer, and tea, respectively. Pramila, had the tea, but that did not prevent much laughter all around discussing family, politics, religion, etc.

The Taj

Nearby India Gate

Jewelry and Corn chips Sellers near Taj

The next day Pramila had some work to do, but once again arranged and insisted on paying for, the"Off Beat Tour," with the same company who ran the slum tour. This time they took us to various sites around the main parts of the city. We started out in the fishing center, more or less what the South Street Seaport used to be.


Then it was on to one of the largest outdoor laundries in the city, where we watched men doing the washing, partly by machine and much by hand. They took in laundry from hotels and various businesses and washed it under primitive conditions, but nonetheless on an industrial scale.


From there we went to the thieves market, more or less an entire neighborhood of flea markets and antique shops, probably mostly fakes. Pramila later told us that it is called the thieves market because in the early morning, much of the merchandise is in fact hot, and therefor dirt cheap. The story we got from our guide had something to do with a mispronunciation. Hmmm.


Next, we went to see the dabbah wallahs, where an entire industry is devoted to delivering lunches all around the city. The food is made by housewives for their working husbands. These guys pick it up, and then deliver it by train or bicycle. Neither rain, nor wind, nor storm, can stop them from their appointed rounds. Apparently they almost never make a mistake, and needless to say, they are not computerized.



Later we met up again with Pramila in a tea room, where in true British style, we summoned the waiter with a bell.
Following tea, she had arranged yet another tour for us, this a historical, architectural, walking tour, not far from our hotel. We viewed many of the old British buildings, many in high gothic style,and most still in use, in varying states of repair, or disrepair. As you can see, no rest for the weary, but we have seen much of what this enormous megalopolis has to offer. Tomorrow, we will meet Pramila at the airport and she will accompany us for a few more days to a beach in northern Kerala. There will be nothing to do but relax.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:14 Archived in India Tagged cities_postcards Comments (3)

Hoi An

We have spent a few days in this charming, though commercial city. For hundreds of years it was a major port, but eventually the river leading to the nearby sea filled with silt, and so the boat traffic moved up to Danang. Perhaps this was a good thing, as many of Hoi An's old buildings were spared modernization. Most likely, things will stay as they are, because now it is a World Heritage Site. Hoi An is chock full of tourists, restaurants, lanterns, and above all, silk tailor shops. Nevertheless the streets set aside for walking are blissfully free of motorbikes, at least at times, and the riverside setting is quite pleasant.




Hoi An has a vibrant food market in the center of town.




It is next to the river.


At night, the French colonial buildings are quite atmospheric.


As well as the boats along the quay.


Once again we had our own personal tour guide. Han, who had previously showed us around Danang, met us in Hoi An yesterday. We walked most of the city streets with her, and ate tiny snails, a local delicacy, as well as excellent ice cream. We also met her parents who live in town, and got to see her twin 14 month old nephews, who are as cute as can be.


It was a lovely day, as she got to practice her English, and we got to spend time with a local person who could show us the interesting Chinese meeting halls and other sites.


They also treated us just like family in the Hai Au Hotel, learning our first names immediately, and anticipating our every need.


Posted by jonshapiro 12:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged buildings people tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)


When we arrived in Hue it was pouring, and our taxi driver tried to cheat us. Everyone, especially taxi drivers it seems, can't be nice. Hue, much smaller than Hanoi is more manageable. While there are motorbikes, and you still have to be careful crossing the street, it is more relaxed and far less polluted.

Today it is still raining, but lightly, and so we were able to walk around the Citadel and the old imperial city. Much of it was destroyed by very heavy American bombing. So pointless. It is hard to understand how it would be possible to bomb such a beautiful and historic place, but I guess that has never stopped others in the past. They are now in the process of reconstructing it, but there is still a lot to see. Old brick walls, dragon and phoenix paintings on the walls, dramatic archways etc. Despite the chilly and clammy weather we spent a few hours wandering around.

Entrance to the Imperial City

Arch Details in the Imperial City



The Vietnamese flag, once again, flies over the highest point in the Citadel. As Huyen says, it is very beautiful, but also very sad because of all of the destruction. The Vietnamese must be a resilient people, after all they have been through. One thousand years of Chinese domination, then approximately 100 years of French rule followed by a war of independence, and then the partitioning of north and south, followed by 10 years or more of war with the Americans. And yet here they are, proud of their ancient culture.


On the following day, it was still overcast for our boat ride on the Perfume River, but the rain held off. The attraction here, are the late 19th century tombs of the emperors, which line the banks of the river, each trying to out due the others in pomp and circumstance. Unfortunately, the whole trip has become quite commercial, and each of the tombs has a separate admission charge. Nonetheless, it is worth doing.

Looking out toward Perfume River from tomb

Tomb ceiling detail

Stone warriors in tomb courtyard

Yours truely

A splash of color along the river

Posted by jonshapiro 12:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged buildings tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (2)

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