Thursday, August 23, 2012


On January 20th we went to Coimbatore by train and then by taxi to Mettupalayan, arriving late afternoon. We woke early on the 21st and caught the train which left for Ooty at seven a.m. The narrow gauge Nilgiri railway, a rare example of the continuing use of steam engines, was built by the British between 1890 and 1908.  It takes you up into the mountains for five hours using a rack and pinion system to negotiate the steep grades of up to 1:8. In the centre of the track is a third track which has teeth for the train to grip and get traction from. 

 The Steam Engine

One of Several Stops to Take On Water

Ooty and the train link to it originated to exploit the tea-growing potential of the region. Tea continues to be exported today. Ooty, or Udhagamandalam as it is now called, became a popular hill station under the British Raj. It was used as a much needed escape from the summer heat.

 Tea Plantation

The train ride was very exciting, definitely a high point of the vacation. Our coach, which we shared with six other people, was very old, made of wood, and very small - we sat four to a side with our knees almost touching. We opened three small windows on each side of the coach and leaned out to look down hundreds of feet into deep valleys spanned by railway bridges built by the British in the 19th Century. We held our breath, hoping the bridges wouldn't collapse. There are dozens of bridges as well as sixteen tunnels.

 Looking from Our Coach into the Next

 Crossing a bridge

 Another Bridge

The mountain scenery was spectacular.  The train went very slowly, up grades as steep as 1:8 using the notches in the track to lever us up. We could almost feel the train straining as it was lifted. Several times we disembarked while stopping to take on water for the steam engine.  

It was all great fun made even more enjoyable by the perceived danger and the companionship of the very nice English couple sitting opposite us. When we reached Coonoor we changed to a modern engine and sped into Ooty in no time at all.

Our hotel, the King's Cliff, was in a charming 170-year-old building whose ownership had passed from one British aristocrat to another in a card game. Later, it was owned for a time by the Taj Hotel group before being purchased by a Tamil Nadu owner. There was a beautiful garden, antique furniture, a glass breakfast house set among the flowers, and wood fires in every room. Set high upon a cliff, the hotel had lovely views of the town below.  After dinner a man came to our room with an arm full of wood and lit a big fire. He insisted that we accept a hot water bottle.  It turned out that we needed it, as it became very cold in the night after the fire burned out.

 Breakfast Room in the Garden of our Hotel

 Sitting Room of our Hotel

 View of Ooty from the Garden of our Hotel

 Hotel Coffee Shop

In the Hotel Garden
 Hotel Entrance

 On January 22nd we hired the hotel driver to take us around to see the sights. He was a good man whose company we enjoyed.  First we went to a look-out point for the views, then to a tea factory (not operating that day), a tea museum, a tea plantation, and the botanical garden for which Ooty is famous.

 View of Ooty

Ooty Botanical Garden

 View of Ooty from the Tea Museum

 View of Ooty
 At the Botanical Garden

As on almost every other day, there was brilliant sunshine which made the mountain scenery look particularly lovely. After dinner we asked for and received a heater for our room, making for a very cozy comfortable night.

The next day, January 23, we again took the hotel's car and drove down the narrow road to the base of the mountains, then through a game preserve to the beautiful city of Mysore.

Strange Vegetation Seen Throughout the Game Preserve

Saturday, August 18, 2012


We were disappointed in our day in Fort Kochin because our expectations were excessive and also perhaps because our rickshaw driver was more interested in taking us to shops - where he would get a cut from our purchases - than in showing us the sights. We therefore decided on the 17th of January to go to Ernakulam. We thought it would be an adventure to go to a large city without having preconceived notions of what we would be likely to encounter. As it happened, we were to have a fascinating day. To begin our day we took the hotel boat to the main jetty.

 View of the Harbour from the Hotel Boat

Main Jetty, Ernakulam

When we arrived, we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to the durbar hall art gallery, somewhere to begin rather than something expected to be special. The gallery was closed for renovation, but when we began to explore the area we discovered that the famous annual week-long Shiva temple festival was ending this very day and that by chance the temple we happened upon was in fact the Shiva temple where in a few hours the elephant procession would begin. We wandered about for a while and looked into some shops. 

Ernakulam Food Vendor

As we passed what looked to be the open entrance to a small hotel, I asked two children if they would allow me to take their photo. They agreed, and one of the adults standing beside us told me that a Brahmin wedding was being celebrated there. Just then, people began to descend a staircase a few metres to our left.  As I watched them coming down, I saw that among them were a man and a woman wearing garlands of flowers around their necks. These were obviously the bride and groom. When I raised my camera, they paused, smiling, to allow me to take my photograph. I felt greatly privileged. They were gracious and welcoming as are so many in India.

Brahmin Wedding, Ernakulam

We inquired at the police assistance booth and discovered that the procession of elephants would begin at the temple and travel for its conclusion to a large field nearby. Though it would be a while before the procession began, we decided to go to the field to see what was happening. People were already gathering, and we were lucky to find two of the last available seats. Next to us was an interesting man with whom we spent the next two hours or so. He spoke, for example, about his job as an able seaman on cargo ships, including his last post on an oil tanker out of Panama. He described the big storms that had frightened him. He lived in Alleppey, spending ten months of the year away and the remainder at home with his wife and two children.

He was in Ernakulam to attend the annual seven-day Makaravilakku festival in the Periyar tiger preserve. He explained that pilgrims went there because every year on the same day a bright light was seen ascending three times up into the sky. He believed this was the work of the god Ayappa who resided in the temple there. Paul later read in the newspaper, however, that this was a hoax. Because the 200,000 devotees bring in a lot of revenue for the temple every year, the state of Kerala has allowed the festival to be held in the tiger preserve. To protect the tigers, however, no lighting ha been provided. This year, after a jeep overturned in the dark and rolled down a hill, the resulting  stampede caused 102 deaths. Without any lighting, the police were unable to locate and assist the injured. Although a similar though less serious accident had occurred some years previously, the state government had refused to deal with the conflict between the temple and the tiger reserve.

Our friend told us about pilgrimages and festivals.  Most pilgrims are men because women between the ages of ten and 50 women are not allowed in the temple. They will light a flame at home, but are considered unclean during their monthly period. Some will not even cook at this time. Pilgrims fast for 41 days during the pilgrimage he attended. They pray at 6:30 p.m., because this is when the god is believed to be most potent and capable of answering supplicants' prayers.

More and more people were coming into the large field where we were sitting. Finally, we heard what sounded like drums and bugles. I moved closer to the road where I could see ten or fifteen men begin to dance to the music dressed in elaborately decorated red and white outfits, each holding a cymbal. They were accompanied by drummers.

It sounded like martial music, with dancing that was stylized to resemble fighting. The hypnotic performance went on and on, the repetitions of the dance keeping time with the loud rhythms of the music.

Soon, six beautifully decorated elephants arrived, one behind the other. 

The atmosphere was incredibly intense: obviously this was an event of high significance.The elephants moved slowly down the field and lined up horizontally, each standing with his mahout beside him. 

Increasing numbers of people were arriving.

With so many people in an enclosed space with only one visible exit, we became uncomfortable and decided to leave.

Musicians We Passed on Our Way Out of the Field

When we reached the road, we found it had been closed. Army and police were in evidence, but there was no sign of aggressive behaviour.

 Musicians on the Road

We walked a few blocks to where the road was open and got a rickshaw. The driver had to use many detours before he finally found a way to get out of the area. Every street was crowded with people walking to join the elephants. Not being accustomed to large crowds, we were relieved to have made an exit; but what an experience!

Next day, January 18th, we took the train to Calicut (Kozhikode), arriving in the evening about nine o'clock, then going by rickshaw to our hotel, the Taj Gateway. This was a luxury hotel with a beautiful swimming pool.  We decided to have a lazy day on the 19th, reading and drinking diet Coke at the pool.

On January 20th we went to Coimbatore by train and then by taxi to Mettupalayan, arriving late afternoon. After a night in a hotel there, we would take the old steam train to Ooty.

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Monday, August 13, 2012


When we arrived in Alleppey we went to the station and waited for the Ernakulam train which was scheduled to leave at around 8:00 pm but turned out to be 90 minutes late. During our wait we had a very enjoyable conversation with two young people who were employees of Intel, a young woman from China and a young man from the eastern part of India. They were both working on software development for mobile phones. They had met in China when the young man was sent there by Intel for five months to help set up a new work unit. Now, the young woman was given the opportunity for two months of on-the-job training in India. What was striking about these two was their intelligence and engaging personalities. We were very impressed by them and enjoyed their company. Before we knew it, the 90 minutes had passed and our train had arrived.

We disembarked at Ernakulam only to find that hundreds of men dressed entirely in black were lying on the platform in the darkness as if bedded down for the night. It's a large station with a very long platform. There were enough men lying about to almost completely cover the available space, leaving barely enough room for us to pull our suitcases through. The number of people was intimidating, and the meager lighting didn't help.

I wasn't afraid of violence, but when the train pulled out, I was worried that one of us would by accident be pushed off the edge of the platform and fall down onto the tracks below. We were looking for the exit but didn't know where it was. After what seemed like hours but was actually no more than twenty minutes or so, we saw the station exit sign and then made our way to our hotel, safe but very stressed and tired. Later, we discovered that the crowds of men in the station were devotees at the temple located in the Periyar game preserve. They were among the estimated 200,000 pilgrims who were visiting there for the annual festival.

In order to reach our hotel it was necessary to cross a long bridge and take a very rough road in the dark. The hotel, the Bolgatty Palace, is located between Fort Kochi and Ernakulam on Bolgatty Island. The grounds were beautifully lit up with dozens of tiny bright blue lights and our room was lovely. 

The Bolgatty Palace Hotel

 The Grounds of our Hotel Looking towards Kochi

Next morning, January 16th, we took the hotel boat across the harbour to the Fort Kochin government boat jetty. Modern buildings lined the harbour.  As on almost every day of this trip, the sun shone brilliantly. The sky was an intense blue; the water in the harbour sparkled.

 View from our Hotel towards Ernakulam, the Urban Part of Kochin

Soon after we disembarked we were approached by Babu, a handsome young rickshaw driver, who offered to take us around Fort Kochin. First, we stopped to see a procession that had originated from a small temple nearby.  It included one elephant, elaborately decorated for the harvest festival, and a few musicians, one with a horn and several with drums. They stopped only momentarily before continuing down a narrow street to the temple. We were happy because we very much wanted to see a temple procession with elephants. The elephant symbolizes good fortune in India.  Ganesh, the god of good fortune, takes the form of an elephant.

 The Procession Approaches Us

Procession Moves towards the Temple
Babu took us to see St. Francis church, and then the Chinese fishing nets and fish market at Vasco de Gama Square. 

Chinese Fishing Nets

 Vasco de Gama Square

He then took us to an excellent shop to look for gifts to take home. Finally, he dropped us off for lunch at Brunton's Boat Yard, an upscale restaurant in a beautiful traditional building on the harbour.

 Restaurant where We Met Bryan Pearson

Soon after, a man about my age sat down at an adjacent table. We asked where he was from, and when he said "Canada" we asked if he was traveling alone and would he like to join us. It turned out that his name was Bryan Pearson from Iqaluit on Baffin Island in the NWT. He had gone to northern Canada as a young man to work on the DEW line, and, as it sometimes happens, never left the North. For several years he had been the mayor if Iqaluit and then an elected member of the legislature.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable time with him over the next hour or so, talking about municipal politics and sharing stories of our travels. His most noteworthy trips were on an African safari and, in the 1980's, on a long trip down the Mekong River in a small boat. His current trip to India had a very tragic association: in 2009 he had canceled a planned Indian vacation with two good friends. They went on the vacation without him, and were both killed in the Taj Hotel terrorist attack in Mumbai.

That evening we saw a Kathakali performance at a small theatre in our hotel. This is a traditional dance form in which folk tales are set to music. The first part of the performance consisted of the dancer lying on his back and, with the help of a small mirror, applying brightly coloured paints to his face in a pattern that gave him a fierce appearance. 

 Dancer Applying his Make-Up

Having completed his preparations, he left the stage to put on his costume.  A singer who played the cymbals and a drummer appeared. Their part of the performance consisted of an explanation of the story that would be expressed in the kathakali dance itself which formed the third and final part.

Soon the dancer reappeared. He wore an elaborate brass headdress and a short but very wide skirt.  He danced for about half an hour to the accompaniment of the drum and cymbal and some loud wailing and chanting on the part of the cymbal player. The dancer was barefoot, and didn't move about the stage much at all. Instead, he told the story through an elaborate series of hand and eye movements accompanied by constantly changing facial expressions.  All of these appeared to have very specific meanings in relation to the story.

We were the only audience. At the conclusion of the performance we were each asked to contribute the equivalent of five dollars in rupees.

The next day, January 17th, we spent in Ernakulam.

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