Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Southern India

Mumbai's (Bombay's) European architecture.

After zipping through the north to see what we considered the must-see sights, we slowed down the pace once we got to the south. A 27-hour train ride took us from Varanasi to Mumbai, and these two cities soon came to represent opposite poles in our Indian experience. Where Varanasi was dirty, Mumbai was clean; Varanasi loud and crowded, Mumbai quiet (for a city) and spacious; hot and humid, vs breezy and manageable; scary at night, vs evening promenades along the waterfront; backward and poor, vs modern and well-to-do; decrepid one-story buildings, vs 18th century European cathedrals; no green space, vs tree-lined streets; cows and waterbuffaloes and dogs roaming the streets, vs 1950s taxis and double-decker buses for your convenience. We're certainly not city people, but we were charmed by Mumbai.

Marine Drive , downtown Mumbai.

Mumbai felt like stepping back in double time: the architecture was 18th century, and the vehicles were 1950s.

Having lived and traveled in The East for these last few years has made us constantly aware of our identities as Westerners. Mumbai was the first place that we felt valued for our British heritage. Usually we're aware of people thinking we are American - and either valuing or despising us because of it. It was interesting for us as Canadians to have this other half of our cultural identity brought to the fore. British cars, British buildings, British signs and turns of phrase, British accented English. No McDonalds, no skimpy-ly dressed blond models on billboards, no Britney Spears blasted on the street. India has a definite Englishness about it, and nowhere did we feel it more strongly than in Mumbai.

Well, we WILL be looking for a car when we get home...how 'bout this style, dear?

The cathedral at Mumbai University; Emily appropriately pensive.

We spent one day walking around the city along Marine Drive. We met an elderly man on his daily walk with his cronies who performed the national duty of interogating the foreigners. Whereareyoufrom?Whatisyourprofession? Whatareyournames?Howdoyoulikeourgreatcountry? HowlongareyouinIndia?

In return for completing this interview, he presented us with a Mahabharata flower, which, he explained, represents the main characters of the Mahabharata, one of India's most-important ancient epics (the other most important epic being the Ramayana). In fact, for all you epic connoiseurs, the Mahabharata is 8-times longer than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey put together! The 100 purple petals around the outside are the 100 sons of Dhristrarashtra (I think that's the right spelling); the five yellow stamens represent the 5 Pandava brothers, who are cousins of the 100 brothers (the 5 brothers are unfairly harassed and sent into exile; eventually they are forced into a war with their 100 cousins, who will not agree to peace, and with the divine help of Krishna the 5 brothers defeat their 100 cousins and take their rightful place on the throne); and the single pistil represents the shared wife of the Pandavas. If anyone's interested, R.K.Narayan has re-written the Mahabharata in a very readable and enjoyable story - less than 200 pages. It's like reading the Coles'Notes of Shakespeare.

Mahabharata flower.

After singing the praises of Mumbai on the first day, on the second day we were attacked by allergies and a slight fever, which we blamed on the train air-con....until we took this picture of a rooftop restaurant: on the left, without flash; on the right, with flash. Look at the picture on the right. No, that's not snow. Or rain. We think it's dust at best, or maybe industrial pollution. It didn't smell like pollution, but maybe we were fooled because of the breeze. This incriminating picture suggests that Mumbai is not quite as clean as we first thought. Two weeks later Geoff's allergies are better but I'm still fighting a sinus infection.

Despite the pollution, this was possibly the coolest restaurant we've ever been to: on a rooftop looking over the harbour, sand 'floor' with stone pathways, fountains and mini waterfalls lit up with lights, sitting in laid-back armchairs under open tent-canopies, with deep-bass funky music and the smell of hookas from nearby tables. Oh yeah, and the food was awesome! We took pictures of the bathroom for future home-modelling inspiration.

Short hike at Rainforest Retreat.
We really enjoyed Mumbai, but we were happy to get out of the city into the countryside. Another 24-hour train ride south took us to Bangalore - the Call Center Of The World (we didn't stop: it looked like a dump) - and from there we caught a bus to Madikeri and then a taxi to Rainforest Retreat. It's an ecologically friendly, sustainable agriculture rainforest plantation. Their main crops are cardamom and coffee, plus they have other crops of pepper, vanilla, pineapples, and beans. We really liked the natural philosophy: they are completely organic and they say things like "Nobody owns land, but we've lived here for 10 years" and "We have very healthy predatory populations of spiders, scorpions, and frogs that help to keep the ecosystem in balance." The food was fantastic and it was blissfully quiet and green. We learned how to cope with leeches (who crawl like inchworms along the forest floor) and we saw the biggest spiders and moths we have ever seen. In fact, the moths there are the largest in the world.

Our cabin at Rainforest Retreat.

While we were at Rainforest, we met a Canadian (!! - rare to meet a Canadian; there really aren't that many of us in the world!) physio therapist/yoga instructor named Teresa. We took her advice and went to Turtle Bay Beach Resort when our time at Rainforest came to a close.

Normal light, and storm light, at Turtle Bay. Really enjoyed the afternoon thunder-and-lightning storms:)

Turtle Bay.

Turtle Bay was a very nice, relaxing beach resort; the staff made us feel like VIPs; the food was great (hm, seems to be a theme throughout India...in fact, I'm kinda hungry right now); white sand; waves; birds...you get the picture. Unfortunately, Geoff hurt his back trying to lift one of our big bags on a bumpy bus, so he had to be careful during our time here.

Kundapur, near Turtle Bay. Our temporary get-well center.

The day came when Turtle Bay was all booked up (because of Diwali festival - man, there are festivals every week in India! They have an incredible stamina for celebrating!) so we moved to a hotel in Kundapur nearby. And we've been here four days or so while we wait for Geoff's back to get better. Armed with Teresa's physio advice, ibuprofen, tiger balm, and a loving wife, he's getting back on his feet. We should be back on the road in a few days, a little wiser and more committed to a daily yoga routine;)

In general, the south seems different from the north in the ways you might expect: hotter, more humid, palm trees, nice beaches, smaller and darker people, spicier food. What a pleasant surprise India has been all round! Next stop, SouthEast Asia.