Sunday, January 23, 2011

Kerala Backwaters Tour

The backwaters are a chain of lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast of Kerala (the state where Bob's family is from). The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both manmade and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala. The backwaters were formed by the action of waves and shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range. In the midst of this labyrinthine system of waterways (sometimes compared to the American Bayou) there are a number of towns and cities.

The backwaters have a unique ecosystem - freshwater from the rivers meets the seawater from the Arabian Sea. In certain areas, such as the Vembanad Kayal (where we were), man-made barrages keep sea water from mixing with the fresh water system. The backwaters are home to a vibrant menagerie of aquatic life including fresh water shrimp, crabs, frogs and myriad fish species; water birds such as egrets, terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, and fish eagles; and animals such as otters and turtles. Coconut groves, paddy fields, and banana plantations abut the waterways, providing a lushly verdant hue to the surrounding landscape.

The kettuvallam or 'boat with knots' is so called because coir ropes tied in knots hold the entire structure of the boat together; not a single nail is used when assembling the boat. The boat is made of huge planks of Jack wood or 'Aanjili' joined with coir, and then coated with a caustic black resin made from boiled cashew kernels. Thatched roofs cover the wooden hulls - some as long as 100 feet. Traditionally, these boats were used to transport spices, sand, rice and other goods along the Kerala coast. Today, these boats are primarily for recreational use, bringing Indian and foreign tourists out into the backwaters to enjoy tranquil views and delicious meals - far from the hustle and bustle of everyday life in India.

Our boat...

...and the double-decker, deluxe model.


Our intrepid captain...


...and her trusty first mate.


Imported figurehead

Rush hour commuters

School bus

Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig!

The welcome squad (a bit addled from their afternoon toddy session)

Tourist parking lot

The view from the deck

Mowing the lake
(workers gathering the invasive water hyacinth to prevent it from marring the view for the tourists)

Parking lot for the locals

The Shrimp and her dinner.
(Each of these fresh water shrimp can weigh up to 3/4 pound)

Fisherman setting his net at twilight

No Photoshop here!

Nor here

Fishermen retrieving their catch at daybreak

Man and egret, hard at work

On the Road in India

post coming soon

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Padmanabhapuram Palace, Vattakottai

Whew - it's been a long time since I've written. India has a way of assaulting all your senses and filling up every moment - interrupting the best of blogging intentions. I will try to be more frequent but don't want to make any promises I may not be able to keep. Since our arrival so much has happened - I'm going to jump into the story of yesterday's long journey while it is fresh in my mind and try to fill in other stories as time allows.

Saturday started at 6:00 am as we packed and prepared for our long trip, assuming little to no resources would be available to us as we traveled. We packed food, drinks, diapers, water, wipes (for hands and for baby), changes of clothing in case of need, stickers to amuse the little one, bug repellent, and more. The day before, Mummy had worked hard prepping sandwiches and fritters to carry with us and eat on the way, so we'd have healthy meals to sustain us. So much preparation despite the fact that shops and restaurants line the roads almost everywhere (our dainty western innards may not have the fortitude to handle local hygiene levels).

Our first stop, Padmanabhapuram Palace, is located about 56 kilometers (32 miles) from where we are staying in Trivandrum. It takes 2 hours to make the journey. Why? Well that's a story in itself. The story of traffic in Kerala is here.

Our driver (Unni) arrived at 8:30 am and we settled in and headed off to the palace. It took Adele a little while to settle in to the car ride. Not having a car seat, she likes to wander the vehicle - but we require her to sit on someone's lap in the back seat for safety's sake. No one uses car seats in India! It's fairly common to see a family of 4 riding on a motorcycle (the father may wear a helmet, but the mother and children are blissfully unprotected). 

Padmanabhapuram Palace is located in the state of Tamil Nadu (Land of the Tamils), just south of Kerala. However it is owned and maintained by Kerala because the whole area used to be part of the kingdom of Travancore, which became modern day Kerala.

The palace is a fairly popular tourist destination, so it attracts more peddlers and beggars than I had seen so far, though later in the afternoon I saw many, many more. Bobby tells me that Kerala itself doesn't have any beggars - but that the ones we saw come from other more destitute Indian states. Arriving in a car with a driver as we did (or maybe it was my obvious pale foreignness), we were clearly tourists and a couple of folks asked for money. I have been told that it is unwise to give to beggars as you might inadvertently be fostering / engendering more social ills - including serious abuse situations. Instead, it is much better to give to organizations that help the poor and sick in a regulated manner. It is easy to academically accept this sitting at my computer, but far harder to do when faced with a mother with 3rd degree burn scars holding a sleeping baby and gazing at you with imploring eyes.

Once we passed through the gates of the palace courtyard, Bobby went to buy tickets and was not charged the foreign tourist rate for me (the foreign tourist rate is nearly 10 times the local rate). I guess I was blending right in :-)  I was surprised to learn we had to relinquish our shoes before entering the palace. We left them at a counter and were given a number to use to reclaim them and headed off across the rather hot sand to the entrance. We gave our tickets to the uniformed security staff at the metal detector, and walked right in. No one searched our bags though the metal detectors beeped wildly as we passed through. We spent about 2 hours walking through the palace buildings and grounds. It was surprisingly cool inside due to the architectural design of the buildings. The style of building is called Nallukettu - a traditional Kerala style that allows wind to pass through slatted walls but shades the interior from the hot sun. The orientation of the buildings and the rooms within is based upon the ancient science of Vastu Shastra ("science of construction") - India's equivalent of Feng Shui.

Here is a bit of info to flesh out the palace for you. It is 400+ years old - almost twice the age of the US - but young by Indian standards. Oddly enough, many of the visitors (young, old, male, female) to the palace seemed more excited at seeing Adele than by the palace exhibits. There were several school groups visiting and all the kids were fascinated with her - trying to pinch her cheeks, rumple her hair, shake her hands, or even pick her up! I can't tell you how the number of times people stopped us to have their picture taken with her. She took it all in stride - oblivious as usual to the attention she was generating. I felt a little famous myself as many kids seemed thrilled to get a wave or smile from a westerner - and a chance to practice their English. If you look closely at this picture you will see most eyes are on Adele.

After the palace, we headed off to the southernmost tip of India. On the way, we stopped the car in the shade and ate lunch, with it running, tree-hugging carbon neutralists that we are. Did I mention how hot it was outside? Even sitting on the side of the main highway, we didn't lack for interesting sights: an old lady on a cell phone dragging along three cows roped to each other, egrets rifling through discarded palm nut shells, trucks passing by - people and cattle crammed into the back, ...

After a full and delicious meal, Adele took a nap as we drove to our next location. While she slept, I did get a chance to visit a real Indian gas-station bathroom. Bring handiwipes, toilet paper, and an adventurous spirit.

Our first stop after lunch was at Vattakottai ("round fort" in Tamil / Malayalam). Although not at the true tip, Unni (our drive and advisor) recommended it as far superior to the chaos of the Indian seashore tourist attraction of Kanyakumari. We were glad we took his advice as it was a very beautiful and peaceful location.  It was a welcome break from the rattle and rumble of the car - and the ocean wind blew the dust of the road from us as we gazed out at the view. On the Bay of Bengal side to the east, we could see hundreds of wind turbines and a nuclear power plant in the distance. India is one of the world's largest producers of wind-based energy. The Hindu is one of the local newspapers; I found a nice post about the fort on their website: you can read it here.

I'll post more about trip to Kanyakumari in a subsequent blog (I know you are aching for pictures!) - but for those who wish to connect with their inner geographer, here are a few bits of trivia:

The southern part of India is shaped like an isosceles triangle, and Kanyakumari (the "virgin goddess") is where 3 major bodies of water (the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean) meet. Eons ago, India used to be part of Africa, but broke off and merged into Asia (forming the Himalayas - which, incidentally, are still growing as India continues its slow motion crash into Asia).

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Seaside Park

Playing -

Parks are not generally well-maintained but Adele and Cousin H. seem to be able to find fun at every turn despite the broken equipment.

Then Adele sees the ocean...

...and she's off! 

Though cool and windy, it is quite beautiful. Unfortunately the water is not safe for swimming at any time of year due to pollution.

Friday, January 7, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes

Sorry, just learning the new camera - you'll have to tilt your head:

(click on video to make it play)

Last year, same park:

Saturday, January 1, 2011


So, as the third and final flight of our 25 hour journey touched down in Kuwait, Adele was heard to exclaim:

"Again! Fly Again!"

After hearing of stranded travelers and stuck airplanes in New York and London for the past few days, we were ready for anything and prepared for the worst.

If you can believe it, all flights were on time, counter staff was accomodating, and the flight attendants incredibly helpful. They even arranged for us to have an empty seat adjacent to Adele and I since though she's still young enough to fly as a "lap baby", she's not really a "lap baby" anymore as you can see in the quiet and peaceful pictures.

Not surprisingly, Adele was a joy to travel with. Excited, eager and ready for anything. There's something to be said for keeping well-fed, well-hydrated and well-rested.

During our 6 hour layover in NYC, our friend Anna B. came to wait with us and what would have been a dull chore was transformed into a wonderful reunion (me) / happy first meeting (Adele).

Well, I think it's time to wake her from her mid-morning (5-7 pm) nap. Hugs and Happy New Year to you all!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 2010

Adele's New Haircut - and, waving "Bye Bye" to the USA