Wednesday, March 25, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 5: Ayurvedic Massage in Alleppey

I don't know how I managed to skip over this recap of such an interesting and authentically Indian experience. Perhaps I was just tired of writing after reliving the cell phone into canal drama. Anyway, Kerala is the ancient home of Ayurvedic medicine. If you're not at all familiar with Ayurveda, there are plenty of places to get a quick overview (YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.). If I could boil it down to one sentence, I would say that it's an ancient health philosophy that emphasizes balance and considers body, mind, and spirit as integral parts of overall well-being. There are many comparisons between Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine and contrasts between eastern and western medicine. What I find particularly exciting is that while eastern medicine has been handed down from expert practitioners over thousands of years as proven truths, science is making progress in examining these traditions and, through peer-reviewed literature, meaningful conclusions are being drawn about effectiveness. This has helped legitimize some principles and practices of Ayurveda within western medicine and you may hear more about its benefits from western clinicians as more tradition is vetted through the scientific process.

Anyway, back to MY experience with Ayurveda in India. As we've established, my time was limited and I didn't see much of a point in planning anything since I essentially relinquished all control over everything to Mother India the moment I landed in Mumbai. So, when I got to Allepey, I went to the local tourism office to book my boat tour of the back waters. While I was there, I asked about Ayurveda to see if there were any practitioners they recommended. This probably seemed like a weird request because in Ayurveda, you usually meet with a doctor and complete a long intake process before beginning a course of treatment that likely involves lots of different herbs, dietary modifications, and other components. So, I referred to my trusty guidebook and asked if we could call one of the places listed there as offering massages. They said I could come by later that day for a massage, so after losing my cell phone in the canal, I asked my driver to take me there.

I took my shoes off and was seated at a desk where a gentleman explained that the doctor wasn't in, but that I could pick from a menu of options. I debated for a bit, but given the swelling in my foot from the surgery and the heat, and the fact that I was in the middle of a 19-day trip that was probably taking a toll on my immune system, I opted for an hour long lymphatic massage. A young woman guided me up some outdoor stairs to the treatment room, which was quite large. The room was simple with a tile floor and two big wooden tables. I didn't take any pictures, but the tables looked like this (thank you Google images), although they were made of a darker wood and much more ornate.

The therapist asked me to undress, but unlike in America, did not leave the room. I stripped down to my bra and underwear and she told me to take those off, too. At that moment, I thought of the people I saw bathing in the canals earlier that day and of the locker room at Healthworks in Cambridge. I was thankful for the 6 years I spent changing there, as it gradually wore down the modesty ingrained in most of us. Also, I figured, she clearly does this all day and sees no reason why I shouldn't get completely naked in front of her. Then, she proceeded to put a paper string bikini on me, which seemed a little pointless. I mean, she got all up in my business to put the thing on me. I'm sure I could have figured it out myself, you know? Then she had me sit on a wooden stool beside the table and began aggressively rubbing my scalp with a lot of herbal oil, an indication of what would follow.

After my vigorous head massage, I laid face-up on the table and she proceeded with the rest of the massage. I've had many massages in my day and this was nothing like any of them. Soooo much oil. When I asked what was in it (it smelled rather strong), the only answer I could get was herbs. This response from Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners can be frustrating. Yes, I know herbs, but WHICH herbs? To this day, I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to that question. The therapist told me of her training in Mumbai as she used long strokes and very deep pressure along my lymphatic pathways. I flipped over about half-way through and she undid the paper underwear. Again, what was the point of this thing? There was no draping of any kind during any part of the treatment. Something to be aware of if you're ever considering getting such a treatment in a foreign land I suppose!

Towards the end of the massage, she disappeared into the bathroom for a second where I heard her turn on some water which she left running. When the treatment ended, she led me to the bathroom. There was a large bucket under a tap in the corner of the tiled room, which also contained a toilet and a sink. In the bucket, there was a small plastic pail like I saw near the toilets in public restrooms across India. She handed me a bar of soap and a small packet of shampoo and told me to sit on a small plastic stool beside the large pail. I'm guessing this was to prevent me from slipping since I was drenched in oil navigating a tiled floor covered in water. She left and I bathed myself using the supplies she left me with. To dry off, I was given a small muslin cloth about the size of a hand towel. It smelled funky and was not really up to the job at hand but I did the best I could before going back out into the treatment room to dress myself.

There was nothing to brush my hair with and as I struggled to get dressed, I accepted that I would have knotty wet hair for the rest of the day. I made my way back to the car feeling a bit lighter on my feet and grateful that this experience probably only set me back about $20 USD. I doubt I'll ever forget my day in Alleppey and hope that I get to visit Kerala again someday.

Monday, March 16, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 9: Agra (The Taj Mahal)

When I told the driver who showed me around Delhi that the hotel wanted to charge me an arm and a leg for a driver to take me to Agra, he wasn't surprised. He offered to call the travel company he used to work for to find a cheaper option for me. This is how things just work out in India, you know? I took him up on his offer and the next morning, I met another driver around 6:30. It was a roughly 3 hour drive to get to Agra and the rain was worse than it was the day before. This weather was not normal for this time of year. The rain was unlike anything I'd ever seen. I would not have driven in it. That's how bad it was. No visibility. Sheets of monsoon-like rain made me question my decision to go see the Taj Mahal. Perhaps I should have stayed local and gone to the mall or something. The driver insisted that the weather would clear up. How could he be so confident?
Passed this guy on the way to the gate of the Taj Mahal
We stopped at a rest stop on the highway about half way through our trip. I ran reluctantly through the pouring rain to get a cup of chai and a pastry. When we got back to the car, I put on my eye mask and travel pillow, reclined the seat, and fell asleep to Alec Baldwin interviewing Julie Andrews in my headphones. Here's the Thing didn't drown out the sound of the rain. I woke up as we exited the highway, which, by the way, was the only road in India that was not entirely occupied by vehicles. The new toll road passed through idyllic fields of wheat dotted by straw huts where I imagine life is nothing like the city life I'd seen up close.
These camels, and the guys offering camel-drawn carriage rides, didn't seem too happy.
The skies began to clear as we entered Agra. Unbelievable. A local guide joined us and took me to the gate of the Taj Mahal where I paid for my ticket and reluctantly agreed to allow a kid with a camera accompany us. There were cows roaming near the ticket counter and monkeys on the roof of the building adjacent to the security line.
An absolutely normal sight
I couldn't believe it, but the sky was gradually turning from grey to blue. Would the sun make an appearance?
Still raining at the ticket counter

Red sandstone. Jewel-inlayed marble.
The Taj Mahal was beautiful. I felt like a silly American tourist getting so many ridiculous pictures taken. My guide and the photographer had me assume cliche poses for my Taj Mahal photo shoot. My running shoes and extra pudge (both courtesy of my recent foot surgery) didn't bode well for the photographer. I bargained for 4 prints and a CD of the images. I didn't need any of them since we took most of the pictures with my camera as well, but I felt bad giving him an outright no after he worked so hard to get me to sit, stand, look, turn, and smile in so many places.

We visited the museum against the advice of my guide. He didn't think it was worth it and I can see why, but the small building housed small paintings of the wife of the Mughal emperor for which the Taj Mahal was built. She died giving birth to their 14th child and the Taj Mahal is her tomb, not a palace as is often presumed. The building itself is constructed of marble and decorated with intricate jewel inlay. I donned the special shoe coverings to go inside and see the tombs up close. I wondered what the common people of the time thought about this ridiculously lavish grave.

Lunch. At an Indian buffet. In India.
The river on which the Taj Mahal was built is nearly dry now, but I imagine it was a beautiful river when construction began. I also imagine I would have enjoyed an audio tour of the grounds, as my guide, who had lived his whole life in Agra, didn't shed much new light on the tomb that I hadn't already read in my Lonely Planet. After the Taj Mahal, I insisted that I stop for lunch. I was so hungry and suggested a few places from my guidebook to the guide and the driver. They weren't thrilled with the idea of stopping since we had more to see, but I needed to eat something. The restaurant we ended up at had a buffet upstairs that included some Indian and Chinese staples and was full of tourists. Go figure.
Jewels being inlayed into marble
After lunch, we stopped somewhere so I could see how the jewels are carved for marble inlay. 4 men worked diligently on the floor shaving jewels and chiseling marble slabs as another explained how these men are the descendants of the ones who adorned the Taj Mahal with the same jewels they were using today.
Descendants of the workers who did the jewel inlay at the Taj Mahal

Then I got lead into a room full of marble tables. I was well-versed at this game by now, looked the sales guy square in the eyes and said firmly, "I live in a small apartment. I don't have the space, the need, or the money for anything in this room. I'm not going to buy anything here." I was so proud of myself... until I was lead to a smaller room with smaller items made of marble. There were candle holders and trinket boxes and ash trays. I emphasized my disinterest as I eyed a small marble box with green jewel inlay. It would make a wonderful gift for my mother-in-law, but I wasn't sure she'd like it and for the money, I knew I could find her a gift she would like and use more. I stood firm and asked to leave. Our next stop was a jeweler where I could see some of the fine jewels that were only available here in Agra. Nope, sorry dude... not buying anything! I knew where the exit was this time and used it promptly.
Red Fort
The driver and the guide were disappointed when I returned to the car empty-handed. Next, we went to The Red Fort of Agra. This one was interesting because it served so many purposes over multiple generations: a fort; a palace; a prison. It was equipped with plumbing. Parts were made of sandstone while others were comprised of marble depending on who built them when. There were wonderful views of the Taj Mahal and beautiful gardens within the walls.

The Red Fort of Agra 
Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Agra Fort, from which he had a view of the building erected for his deceased wife. I won't bore you with more things you can learn elsewhere. If you're a history lover, you might enjoy this quick read:

Parts of the Red Fort are constructed of white marble 
We didn't spend long at the Fort. Again, I felt like an audio tour would have done it more justice, but time was running out and I was exhausted! The skies remained clear for the journey back to Delhi and I managed to stay awake long enough to admire the agricultural landscapes dotted by straw huts. As we got closer to the city, it became evident that the farms were being developed as one of the world's largest megacities continued its expansion. Delhi has become the world's second most populous city after Tokyo, more than doubling its population since 1990 to 25 million (source). The skyscrapers that would house luxury condos being constructed prompted me to ask my driver whether the growth was due to migration from the country like in China. He said no, it's mostly from familial growth.

View of the Red Fort from the entrance
We chatted about our families for a bit. He asked me about my husband and specifically asked if it was a "love marriage." I explained that arranged marriages weren't really a thing in the US, which he found quite curious. I asked about his family. Both of his parents were dead and he cared for his high school aged brother and college aged sister. I got the impression that not having parents to help arrange a marriage for him was weighing on him. It was clear that he wanted to be married but it seemed like that just wasn't an option for him at the moment. For now, he was trying his hand at a sales job at a bank but he didn't like it and driving apparently paid more.

As we left Agra, there were tons of these panchii shops that sold candy. My driver hopped out to get me a piece to try.
As we got closer to the hotel, the traffic intensified. It was a bit scary in the dark. We stopped at one more emporium where I would have bought a bedding set had we not just received a beautiful one for our wedding. I got a few small souvenirs, but was holding out for the mall attached to the hotel. Unfortunately it was pretty late by the time we got back and the mall was closed. I ate a very global dinner at the hotel restaurant, which had stations representing every continent, and went back to shower, pack, and nap before my 4 am flight to LA for the next segment of this 19-day road trip.
Life on the streets of Agra
I have been trying to add pictures to some of the previous posts in this series. It's slow-going but Mumbai pictures are up here

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 8: Delhi in a Day

I met with the concierge the night I arrived at The Leela in Delhi and explained I had two days in town. I wanted to see Delhi and Agra in those two days. He tried selling me on a ridiculously expensive private car complete with a tour guide for Agra that would have cost me several hundred USD. I held off on that and negotiated hard on the day in Delhi.

The next morning, I grabbed a quick breakfast and left the hotel around 7:30. My driver for the day was super nice. His English was better than any of the other drivers I'd had and he explained that he used to work for a tour company. When I told him I didn't have a cell phone, he offered me one of his since he had two that way we could meet up when I was done at each stop. Awesome. We talked about what I could realistically do before dark and mapped out a plan. It was raining, but I tried not to let that get my spirits down. First stop was the Red Fort. I spent hours navigating the walled city listening to an audio tour. I loved learning about the history, the values of the time, and the architecture. The rain and the early morning kept the crowds at bay, but the sky eventually cleared and it got busier just as I got a call from the driver. He said I needed to hurry if I wanted to see the rest of Delhi. I reluctantly skipped the last few stops on the audio tour and headed back to where he dropped me, where I was accosted with offers of all kinds. I kept my head down and tried to call him when he appeared out of the crowd. On to the next stop.

My guide for the day explained that to explore Old Delhi, I was going to have to take a pedicab and assured me that he found a great guide to show me around. Old Delhi was wild, and it was Sunday and it was raining, so most of the bazaar stalls were boarded up for the day. It was still insanely crowded. While I felt safe in Mumbai, Kochi, and Allepey, I got many warnings to carefully watch my belongings in Old Delhi. It felt markedly different from everything else I had seen in India. I didn't see many women or families. There were so many men. My pedicab took me to see Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. I was prepared to go inside and was very curious since I've never been inside a mosque, but they were in prayer and I didn't want to wait the 30 minutes until they finished. I was bummed to miss the view from the top Delhi, but there was so much more to explore. Our next stop was a shop. A tourist trap full of saris and pashminas. I held it together and walked right out.

Next we visited the Jain Sweitamna temple. I didn't know much about this religion. I had to remove my shoes, wash my hands, read a set of rules that forbid menstruating women from entering, and leave my personal belongings with the "reception" area. I shoved nearly all of the contents of my purse into my pants pockets and hoped for the best as I followed the priest upstairs. He explained some of their rituals and beliefs, which struck me as a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism. One of the oldest religions in the world, there are about 5- 6  million Jains in the world today. I later learned that Jain are an intergral part of the economy in India. As the 6th largest religion in India, they make up less than half a percent of the Indian population, but are reported to make up about a quarter of the economy in India. They are nonviolent, vegetarian, and have a long-standing reputation as good business people. I wasn't able to take any pictures in the temple, but the street it was on was very peaceful and apparently inhabited only by Jian people.

I met back up with the car and my driver took me to the seat of Indian government.  On the way, we drove around Connaught Place, a popular shopping destination. I hopped out to grab a bite to eat - a spicy paneer wrap that I ate in the car. There was just too much to see! Oh, and I stopped at a state emporium where I bought one big souvenir that I drove a hard bargain for. More on that another time. We drove through the parade route that recently hosted President Obama. My driver likes our current president and was excited for him to visit. I asked a few questions about Indian politics and soaked in my surroundings. This part of Delhi was a stark contrast to Old Delhi. It was clean. There were green spaces and lots of trash cans dotting the well-groomed lawns, where families picnic on nicer days.

Humayan's Tomb, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was next. It was breathtaking. My camera battery wasn't cooperating, so I didn't get many pictures, but as I was leaving it decided to come back to life. My driver said many tourists like Humayan's Tomb better than the Taj Mahal and I can see why. Built in the 16th century to honor the Mughal Emperor Humayun, the large sandstone structure is really spectacular. Other structures, like Isa Khan's mosque and tomb, are also located at the site. I fought the rain through most of this site visit. It was worth it.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed by the Lotus Temple. Like all Bahá'í Houses of Worship, it is open to worshipers of all faiths.

Needless to say, 1 day was hardly enough to explore Delhi, but I think I covered an impressive amount of ground. I even got to a few landmarks that I didn't mention in this post. Pictures are coming soon, I promise. My final post will be on Agra. Oh, and in case you're wondering, my cell phone (not the one that fell into the canal), has been returned. DHL delivered it all the way from India yesterday. Nuts, right?!

Monday, March 9, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 7: Fort Kochi to Delhi

I only had about 45 minutes to explore Fort Kochi, which was hardly enough time to see anything. I couldn't afford to get lost, so I stuck to the shoreline where I saw many more of those amazing Chinese fishing nets. I navigated through vendors selling cheap jewelry, trinkets, coconuts, and ice cream. Maybe being so pressed for time is a good thing for the wallet because I wasn't at all tempted. The shoreline became difficult to follow as I spotted a sign for the Dutch Cemetery, which I read about in my guide books. I found the gate, snapped a photo, and hopped in a tuk tuk, hoping he could show me around a bit and take me back to the ferry.

We stopped at a pretty church. I went inside and tried to absorb what I saw, but ran back to the tuk tuk. I couldn't afford to dilly dally. The driver insisted on taking me to see spices and pashminas. I tried to argue with him and offered him more money to take me straight to the ferry, but he had other plans. $40 later, I emerged from the shop with vanilla beans, saffron, perfume, and chai massala tea, all of which I'm sure I could have found cheaper at a grocery store or mall. Damnit India!

Next thing I know, I'm being dropped at an unfamiliar location for the ferry. I go to the boarding area. Nope, this is definately not the right ferry. Of course there are more than one. No, I don't know the name of the one I need to get on. I run back to the tuk tuk and explain that I have a car waiting on the other side of the ferry and that mine is closer to the fishing nets. He exclaims I should have told him that and heads off toward the nets. I get on the next ferry and am excited to see my driver waiting as I approach. I think we'll make it to the airport on time, but he hasn't heard from the police yet.

India pried my technology away for a reason. I enjoyed being disconnected for the rest of my trip. Sure it was annoying to have to print stuff and write everything down, but I spent more energy absorbing my surroundings as a result. When I got to the Kochi airport to go to Delhi, I asked a stranger to borrow his phone so I could call my husband to tell him I lost my (other) cell.

I arrived in Delhi later that night and was greeted by a wonderful driver from my Delhi hotel, The Leela. The car was so nice! I could get used to car seats that have massage features... and to having a driver for that matter. It was all so surreal, though, you know? When I arrived at the Leela, I told the front desk about my missing phone and they empathized with my situation. After I got a tour of all of the technical features of my really nice room, I booted up my laptop and was in shock as I read an email from the Police in Kerala. They found my phone! What are the chances, honestly? Now, how were we going to get it back. I responded to the email with the address of my hotel in Delhi and asked if they could courier the phone to me. After a lot of back and forth between the Police, the Leela, and the Courtyard Marriott back in Kochi, I learned that it would be impossible for them to get the phone to me before I departed Delhi. So, I paid the Marriott to go pick up the phone from the Police and send it via DHL to my office in the US, which would take at least a few days. Apparently, there's no overnight shipping from Kochi to LA.

This would mean I'd be without a phone for my travels back to the US and during my conference in LA. Another week of being disconnected. Would I survive without handheld email, mobile boarding passes, calendar reminders, twitter, and instagram for that long? Would the conference have ubiquitous wifi? What about all the conference calls I had for work that week? Would I have to take them all from my hotel room using the land line? How would I tell time? Surprisingly, none of this occurred to me. I just resigned myself to being disconnected and had neutral feelings about it all. It would all work out because I had no other choice. Thanks, India.

Next post: Delhi in a day.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 6: Kochi

I hope you're enjoying these posts! I realize a travel journal is a bit of a departure from my normal posts, but I usually keep a journal when I travel and typing it is so much faster. I enjoy sharing my experiences with you and now that I'm back in the habit of writing, I'll be posting more regularly.

I still have a few more days in India to write about, even though I'm back in the US. I'm in Anaheim at Natural Products Expo West and I'm loving every minute of my time here. The positive energy in this community is inspiring and I can't wait to share my behind the scenes look at the natural products industry with you in the coming weeks and months. There are such great sustainable, nutritious, and delicious foods being made by people who care about the health of people and the planet. So tune in again soon, for pictures, stories, and product reviews!

Flashback to India...

Kochi. Oh, Kochi. Where do I even begin? How about at the Courtyard Marriott Cochin Airport since we'll revisit it later? Another really nice hotel full of hospitality. My colleagues left on Thursday evening after my presentation at CUSAT, but not until after we enjoyed some iced coffee together. Over coffee, they gave me more tips on what to do and see over the rest of my trip. I took notes and consulted my guide book and sketched out a list. I hired a car again to take me around Kochi and our first stop was Cherai beach. It was probably around 9:30 when I found myself looking out at the Arabian Sea. It was quiet and peaceful. A real change of pace from the busy streets. I walked the beach and smiled exchanged smiles with the few I shared the time and space with. A little girl took an interest in me and I snapped a photo. I wondered why nobody was there laying out on beach blankets or sunbathing. I took some more pictures, enjoyed the waves for a bit, then started making my way back to the car. The driver told me the beach is more of an evening thing... maybe the sun is just too hot to hang out there during the day?

As we headed toward the ferry, we passed the ancient Chinese fishing nets that date back to the Kahn Dynasty. Apparently, they're not used much, but they transported me back an ancient time for a moment between honking horns. I thought the ferry was near the beach, but it turned out to be a half hour away. While we were on our way, we passed a temple with a huge crowd. Men riding an elephant adorned with bright fabric and lots of jewels caught my eye. The music was enchanting. I observed until the elephant rode away and the music died down then got back in the car.

When we got to the ferry, I went to repack my purse to make sure I had the necessary supplies to explore my next destination, Fort Kochi, by foot. Camera? Check. TP? Check. Wallet? Check. Hand wipes? Check. iPhone? Where's my iPhone? Seriously Andrea? I tore my backpack and purse to pieces. We flipped up the back seat and searched every crevice of the car. Where could it be? Back by the temple? At the beach? I look at the time. It's almost 12 and my flight is at 4. It takes 15 min to get back to the temple and 40 min to get to the airport.

I ask the driver to take me back to the temple and the search for my phone leads us into the celebratory worship.  We take off our shoes and head to a table near the back of an open-air space full of life. People are lined up to make offerings. Others are on line for food. There are some women chanting on the stage. The people at the table seem to be selling tickets. Maybe this is some kind of festival and there's a 50/50? I doubt it. My driver speaks with the people behind the table. A few men wave each other down and then one grabs the microphone, and makes an announcement over the PA about my missing phone. I was grateful for everyone's help and sympathy. I was clearly such an outsider and they were so warm and helpful. A middle-aged woman came out from behind the table and sat next to me while we waited to see if anyone might come forward with the phone. She asked me if I was married and wanted to know about my husband. She was so sweet and suggested we file a police report.

We drove for a couple of minutes and arrived at a parking lot. There was a crowd of people waiting outside the police station. I had no idea what the process was for something like this and everything I saw made me feel like this could be hopeless. The driver spoke to the uniformed man standing in the door. Then we walked across the street to a little shop who pointed us back towards the police station. What was going on? I was so confused. We found another shop near the police station. Words were exchanged and eventually, my driver bought a piece of thin, white, computer paper. Interesting. We head back to the police station where I basically write down what I lost, where I lost it, and how to reach me (email?). The odds of them finding my phone can't be good. My handwritten paper gets put on top of a stack of papers just like it on the inspector's desk. It's almost 1:00 now. Do I still have time to see Fort Kochi? The driver takes me back to the ferry. I buy a ticket and wait for about 5 minutes then watch in awe as a ferry unloads. Every square inch was packed with people, motorcycles, scooters, tuk tuks, cars, and small trucks. I don't think any livestock deboarded. Once empty, we all file aboard in classic Indian chaos which is extremely efficient. I find myself in Fort Kochi a few minutes later. I have no idea what to see or do here and have no time to consult my book. I just walk.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 4: The Backwaters of Kerala

If you missed the other posts in this series, you can check them out here; Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

When I was asked to go to India, I was so excited. I knew it would be a short trip and I knew I'd work hard while there, but I also knew I'd add a couple days to the beginning and end of the trip so that I could be a tourist for a bit. Hardly enough to see much of India, but more than enough to know I want to see more! I love travelling because I love to learn and immersion learning is the best. I love history, I find religion fascinating (albeit disturbing at times), and I love architecture. I bought a Lonely Planet guide (the massive print one and the kindle version), listened to podcasts, and even searched Roku for TV shows about India in the weeks leading up to my trip. I called friends who had been and I read blog posts and tourism websites as I rushed to change my name on my passport and get my visa issued in time. I wanted to make the most of my time and chose to fly into Mumbai and out of Delhi because I found good flights and because that forced 2 cities onto my itinerary.

As the agenda for my speaking engagements evolved, there were moments of excitement and of disappointment. I hoped that I would get to visit a university with a big food or nutrition department. I was excited about talks planned in Kerala, but then bummed that we'd only be there for a day. I didn't book any train or plane tickets or make any firm plans to do anything in particular because everything I learned about travelling in India made planning seem like a fool's game. I highlighted my tour book and dog-eared pages and hoped for the best. While there were certainly things I could have done better (like visit the beaches in the evening), I was amazed that more things didn't go wrong.

The agenda worked out perfectly. I ran 4 workshops in 3 days. The ones on Monday and Friday got cancelled or rescheduled, so I had even more time to explore! We ended in Kochi instead of Delhi and my colleague rescheduled my flight to Delhi and modified my hotel reservations so that I could spend time in Kerala (thank you, Sid!). Maybe I would get an ayurvedic treatment and visit the back waters of Kerala after all! I looked forward to the mishmash of Dutch, Portuguese, and British colonial architecture in Kochi. But first I had to rock my presentations. After one of them, I actually met one of our book authors, Professor Bhushan Patwardhan, author of Integrative Approaches for Health: Biomedical Research, Ayurveda and Yoga. He's interested in writing a book specifically on ayurvedic nutrition. How cool is THAT?! And he gave me a copy of a scientific journal about Ayurveda that he's the Editor of, which I read most of on the plane. I can't wait to learn more about it.

OK OK, on to the juicy stuff and the ugly stuff that was bound to happen at some point...
My favorite way to eat a dosa: with masala potatoes inside and a couple pouched eggs on top (special order)
Kerala was so cool. I can't wait to share pictures with you(here they are!). On Friday, after enjoying another breakfast dosa and some filtered coffee (the region is known for its coffee). I took a car to Alappuzha, AKA Alleppey. My tour book said I could take a boat from there to Kollam, and stop at Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī's ashram on the way, so of course that's what I wanted to do. What it didn't say is that would be an 8 hour ferry ride, that I wouldn't get to see the small canals, and that I'd essentially have to make a 3-day trip out of that. On to plan B.

I took a small motor boat for a half day tour of the canals. The skipper (I guess that's what you'd call him), barely spoke any English, but he was wonderful. I sat there in peace and quite (except for the hum of the motor) and sweat in the humid heat as I tuned out the world.

We made our way across a large lake then passed rice patties on either side of a large river before heading into the canals. The canals were unlike anything I'd ever seen. They call it the Venice of the east, but Venice isn't green and the people don't live life IN the canals. The people in Alleppey lived off the water. Their homes were right on the water's edge and each house had steps down into the water where I saw women hand washing dishes and laundry right there in the canal. Nearly all of the stoops had soap and I saw men bathing in the waters. Laundry hung on clothes lines and most houses had a canoe with their name on it tied up outside. There was little evidence of modern society except for the occasional glimpse through an open door of a grandmother sitting in her plastic chair in front of a small TV, watching what I imagined to be Bollywood's version of soap operas.

My skipper stopped a few times to ask if I needed to use the toilet, the conditions of which were better than expected (my ziploc of TP, lysol, and hand wipes FTW). I bought a coconut and sipped the water from it as we went deeper into the back waters. We saw school girls with gorgeous long braids in uniform khaki dresses with red scarves walking to school (Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, which has been attributed to decades of the democratically elected communist government). We pulled over for another stop, where there were clear signs of tourists. I was curious what they were all there to see. The skipper motioned for me to get out and I gathered my belongings. As I picked up my backpack, I heard a plunk in the water beside the boat. I looked overboard and saw the ripples. I knew immediately that my company issued iPhone was now at the bottom of the canal. The skipper saw the look of distress on my face, stripped down to his underwear, and jumped in. I wondered if this was a routine problem that he encountered while shuttling tourists through his picturesque village.

A crowd gathered on the banks of the canal as I sat there helplessly. After a few minutes, I told him it was OK, but I'm not sure he understood. He kept swimming down to the bottom, coming up for air with blood shot eyes and continuing the search. I felt awful as I rationalized the situation. I lost some great pictures I had snapped with the phone but I had been using a real camera for most of the trip and in my backpack, I had another iPhone. It wasn't set up for international calls, but maybe I could call Verizon and have them activate it? Either way, the one in the canal was a lost cause, right? I mean, all of India's rice couldn't absorb the canal water, could it? I thought maybe one of the onlookers would jump in too, but they just explained to each other what was going on as more came and went. I tried to tell the skipper not to worry about it, but he was determined. Then he showed me what was making it so difficult when he came up with handfuls of dead foliage... water chestnuts I think (GGRC folks: they were as invasive in parts of these canals as they are on the Mystic, completely blocking some parts, appeared to lead people to abandon their nearby homes). He kept looking for what felt like an awkward eternity. I pleaded with him to abandon the search and he finally did. We headed back to where we came from without ever seeing whatever tourist sight we stopped to see. I didn't check my email for the rest of the day.

Was this India's way of telling me to disconnect? If so, it didn't work for long. More on that in Part 5!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 3: Travel Tips

If you missed parts 1 and 2 of this series of posts, you can check them out here and here. For this post, I've gathered some travel tips.  If you ever find yourself preparing for a trip to India, here's some advice:
  • Pack toilet paper and carry it with you everywhere. While western hotels, airports, and fancy restaurants might supply a roll, they are the exception, not the norm. If you'll miss it, bring it. Might as well pack some hand sanitizer and put it in a zip lock with the TP while you're at it. If you're a germaphobe, you might go so far as to throw a travel-size bottle of lysol in that bag for good measure. 
  • Bring breathable scarves/pashminas or purchase one upon landing. I got this advice from my dear friend and yoga teacher, Wendy, when I asked her what to pack and it was such a great tip! Sometimes, you don't want to breathe in or smell the air around you and wearing one helped me make little adjustments to my appearance and comfort throughout the day.
  • Be prepared for all kinds of weather and bring practical shoes that are easy on/easy off.
    • Sun screen
    • bug spray
    • sneakers and/or strappy and supportive sandals that you don't mind exposing to "the elements"
    • a poncho (I really wish I had packed this, but it wasn't the rainy season when I was caught in 2 days of torrential downpours)
  • It's a conservative place. Sun dresses and tank tops and shorts might draw unwanted attention.
  • Realize that your plans and schedules are all tentative and be flexible.
  • Don't lose your boarding pass! 
  • Don't lose your cell phone! Or your other cell phone! (more on this in the post about Kerala.)
  • Pack some neutral tasting food that you can eat on the go. Granola bars, trail mix, etc. 
  • Don't drink the water. Get your drinks without ice. Be careful when it comes to fresh produce.
  • Drink lots of chai masala.
  • Eat all the dosas you can. I promise to post more about food once I get my pictures uploaded!
  • Go with a strong idea of what you might want to bring home as a souvenir and seek out a reputable seller (lonely planet and trip advisor were helpful on this front). Don't let your drivers/guides (even the good ones) derail your plans by dropping you off at a "demonstration." I was taken to see special jewels, handcrafted marble tables with jeweled inlays, rugs, pashminas, spices, you name it. And I thought I was being pretty firm. Apparently not firm enough. Just say no! 
  • Prepare your immune system
    • I had to go to the travel clinic to get a typhoid fever vaccine and malaria meds.
    • I amped up my vitamin routine a few weeks before travel and packed one of those crazy huge pill cases full of my supplements and malaria meds so I didn't have to pack a bunch of bottles. This helped me keep with my regimen, which is a challenge at home, let alone on the road! 
    • I also doubled my probiotic dosage a few weeks prior to departure to help me ward off bugs. I didn't get the slightest touch of "delhi belly" and give partial credit to all those friendly microbes. 
  • Don't miss Delhi. I'll tell you all about it in another post, but of all the places I went and things I saw, Delhi was my favorite. I was in awe of so much of what I saw and I covered a lot of ground in a single day. That said, I felt less safe here than I did in other cities. Keep your personal belongings very close. 
  • If you can afford to, spring for a driver. He'll take you where you need to go, wait for you, and be a great resource. Just know what you want to see/do and try to discuss your optimal route if possible. It will be relatively inexpensive and you might find it a worthwhile use of your money if it means you can cover more ground, feel safe, and have peace of mind.
  • Ignore panhandlers. THIS WILL BE HARD! They are so persistent and your heart aches for them. You will see their awful living conditions up close because they survive on the street. Mothers with babies on their hips will ask you for money to feed their children. Children will try to sell you all sorts of trinkets and the look in their eyes will break you down. But as soon as you engage with them, they won't let you go. They will walk with you to wherever you are going, even if you completely ignore them. I made the decision at the beginning of my trip to pick specific occasions/reasons to be generous/charitable and made selective donations and tipped generously. But I tagged along with a fellow American for a half a day (we met on a bike tour of Mumbai) and he didn't ignore the locals who approached him. He wasn't able to shake them once they clung on and it was so uncomfortable. 
  • Talk to people. The drivers and other people I met along my journey often asked me about my family. The first question was always if I was married and then they wanted to know all about my husband and if it was an arranged marriage or a love marriage. This served as a great reminder that Americans are not the center of the universe! India is the largest democracy in the world and so many of their customs are foreign to us so it stands to reason that your customs are just as foreign to them.
OK, I think that sums up most of my tips. I'll have a posts on Kerala, Delhi, and Agra live soon! And then at least a post or two on Natural Products Expo West, where I am now! 

India Travel Journal Part 2: Language, Work, Airports, Traffic, and Security

If you missed Part 1, you can catch up on the first leg of my journey here. I'll be adding pictures to all posts next week, so be sure to come back for those.

The middle part of my trip was all work. I didn't do much sightseeing, but did get to spend lots of time with my colleagues in India and with students, researchers, librarians, and university administrators. It was great to get entrenched with the locals and hear about some of the cultural and academic norms from people who live here. My conversations with friends and colleagues who had been to India, my Lonely Planet, and the various podcasts and TV shows I read, listened to, and watched prior to departing for my trip prepared me well for India, but arriving here raised so many more questions. I also got some great travel tips from my colleagues who also helped address some of my natural curiosities. I had, for example, been wondering why all the business names, signs, and advertisements (billboards, etc), were in English. I knew English was spoken by many and that there were lots of local languages in India, but I guess I didn't connect the dots. Because Indians often don't understand each other's local languages, they fall back on English. This seems to be especially true for those who have attended university and/or work in tourism. Check out this language map on wikipedia to get a sense of the many languages and dialects spoken throughout India.

The author workshops I delivered took me to universities in Pune, Mumbai, and Kochi (aka Cochin) and to an engineering firm in Pune. So once in India, I found myself on four more flights. I always find airports interesting, regardless of where they are and that was absolutely the case in India. They featured prayer rooms and gender-specific security lines. They had decent food and clean well-stocked bathrooms (more on this later). They did not have wifi. But perhaps the most notable observation was the security practices. I am not exaggerating when I say that they checked my boarding pass at least a half dozen times at each airport. Before you enter the airport, you have to show your photo ID and flight confirmation (the email reservation on your phone is acceptable). Then you get ticketed and have to have your boarding pass stamped at security. Then you have to show it twice at the gate (to two people back to back). Then again when you board the plane. And AGAIN when you deboard the plane! What the heck?! I guess since language is an issue, they want to make sure you're getting on the right plane? You also have to get tags for each of your carry-on bags and have those tags stamped. It's crazy!

The hotels I stayed at also had pretty rigorous screening. They inspected each car on entry and made guests walk through metal detectors then get wanded by a gender-specific security officer. And bags went through an x-ray scanner, too. My colleague said that this was all to provide the appearance of security but that it wasn't really doing anything meaningful. It did make me wonder about security spending in general. I mean each hotel had several visible people to manage security. Once I was in the hotel, I received some of the best hospitality I've ever received. Actually, that hospitality started from the moment I landed at the airport since there were drivers there from the hotel to pick me up. In Delhi (next post will be devoted entirely to Delhi), I was driven home in a super fancy audi with massage features built into my seat. I could get used to this whole private driver thing if it weren't for the insane traffic.

Oh that's right, the traffic. How have I not mentioned that yet? Indians must be born with superior spatial reasoning, hand eye coordination, and response times because all of the above are requisite to drive anywhere. There is an insane amount of traffic and I was shocked that I didn’t witness a single accident because cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedicabs, buses, pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes, scooter and all kinds of animals share the same congested lanes. They seem to communicate presence and passing with frequent honking, as if they're all having a conversation with each other through car horns. Some trucks even say "Horn Please" on their tailgates. Getting anywhere can be scary and I might have had an anxiety attack if I didn't just trust that my drivers were highly skilled and would get me to my destination without killing me. Somehow, I managed to convince myself of this pretty early on and I made a conscious effort to NOT look at the road in front of me any time I got in a car.

It's probably worth stating at this point that I was pretty sheltered and pampered during my trip. If I had been travelling for leisure, I'm not sure I would have sprung for the 40 minute flights, the super classy hotels, or the car service everywhere. I had planned on taking trains and public transit, but my colleagues insisted that I take cars everywhere. As a result, I do feel like I didn't get to see as much of the real India as I would have liked, but it was probably for the best. I want to go back. And maybe when I return, I'll see more of the grit and I'll force myself to experience more of the crowds up real close.

More on the food, Kerala, Delhi, Agra, and packing and travelling tips in the next posts in this series... I promise! And I will add pictures soon, I swear!