Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sri Lanka: Land of the Buddha, Where Elephants Roam Free


COLOMBO- Getting There

Ceylon has such an enchantingly exotic name. I for one had wanted to go there since the late 70s. I had finished a PBS Nova documentary, The Fragile Mountain, on overpopulation and deforestation in Nepal and wanted a break. Asking some Peace Corps friends in Nepal their thoughts on going all the way to the southern end of the Indian continent to Sri Lanka they responded," Are you crazy? You're in Nepal. Take a break here." And so I did. I flew to Lukla on a small prop plane and headed out for a February solo winter trek up the Khumbu Valley with a Sherpa I engaged in Lukla to guide me to Everest Base Camp. But that is another story.

Now some 40 years later, I finally got to Sri Lanka with my husband Rob and am so glad I did. The country is much easier to travel in than India because the population is not as out of control as it is throughout India. The other main difference one notes immediately is that there must be a better taxations system because the infrastructure of roads, hospitals, schools is much better in Sri Lanka. 

We flew into Colombo via the Maldives, a condition of our Star Alliance partner fare on our Round-the-World Trip using United frequent flyer points. (We used only 180,000 total frequent flyer points for both of us to travel around the world.)  What would otherwise have taken us only an hour on a direct flight from Trivandrum India to Colombo Sri Lanka,  took us almost 7 hours due to a 6-hour layover in the Maldives. It was worth it to see the Maldive islands from the plane as they are clear blue islands almost fully submerged in water. I am sure the snorkeling and diving that people come there for is worth the trip. However, they certainly will not survive global warming and seem fragile at best for human habitation. The tourist base and divers keep the Maldives alive with extremely expensive getaways that lack much if any cultural interface. Not our cup of tea, even though we love snorkeling in Asia, we are adventure travelers and the Maldives are a little too posh. 

We arrived in Colombo 7 hours later at the airport in their capital. Another newer airport has been built inland, financed by the Chinese in a trade deal with SL.  As no one uses the newer airport and there is no demand to do so, we understand it is to be shut down for the time being. This is just an example of the corruption and graft at the top of the SL government that has sold out a lot of SL's resources and power to the latest invaders, the Chinese. 

Since America is "being made great again," it appears we have abdicated our role as world leaders and China has filled the vacuum.  It is abundantly clear here who will reap the strategic geo-political benefits of locating in this south Indian Ocean country.  We found out that the massive construction project that is being built on in the Colombo harbor is actually a Chinese financed new industrial harbor, including a major shopping mall and office buildings.  It will change the face of Colombo from the traditional Ceylonese old port city to a new Shanghai look-alike within three years time. We were glad to see Colombo before the old Ceylon was lost completly. 


This is not a name for a Ceylonese strain of marijuana. Gangaramaya is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Colombo. Because we had yet to do our research, we followed a one-eyed tout there who said he would show us a big Buddha temple, arms gesturing largely. We were happily surprised to find the wonderful experience of the temple at Gangaramaya.  

Wikipedia notes: "Today Gangaramaya serves not only as a place of Buddhist worship; it is also a center of learning. The temple is involved in Buddhist welfare work including old peoples' homes, a vocational school and an orphanage for tsunami victims. 

We found it to have one of the largest collections of Buddha statues donated from countries all over the world and truly an impressive museum/temple.  As Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country, one finds it is also an international gathering center for Buddhists from all over the world.  This temple personifies that with its statues if Buddha and devotion to Buddhist culture.
A glass and a gold Buddha

When finished with our tour, the tout tried to milk us for an outrageous sum of money for his touring and taxi services. We shot back a knowing outrage and vehemently put our foot down. In the end, we still paid him twice what the tour would have cost before sending him and his driver on their way.  

My favorite Hindu statue of Samatha Bhadjra

Amber Rambo- Our host in Colombo
We stayed at a delightful AirBnB in Colombo called The  Halcyon House. Our host nicknamed himself "Amber Rambo" as he is a Rambo movie buff.

While we found Colombo to be a fairly pleasant city to get around in via tuk-tuk, we did not find it to be very entertaining except for the Old Fort area, the Pettah Vegetable Market and its many temples. 

We were anxious to set out for the more cultural sights around the up country town of Kandy and the environs.  Again we took a train up into the hills and much like in Kerala, the high hill country of Sri Lanka is devoted to tea plantations.  

The cultivation of tea and spices goes back to the Portugese who sought to bring Ceylon into the missionary fold of Christianity. The Buddhist majority disliked Portuguese occupation and its influences and welcomed any power who might defeat the Portuguese. In 1602, therefore, when the  Dutch landed, the king of Kandy appealed to  them for help. When the Dutch who were largely Protestants overthrew the Portuguese, they kicked the Portuguese Catholics out and left the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alone. A combined class of Dutch and Ceylonese were called Burghers became the legacy of the Dutch rule 

After the Napoleonic War, in 1802 the Dutch part of the island was ceded to Britain, and became a crown colony. In 1803 the British invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the 1st Kandyan War, but were bloodily repulsed. In 1815 Kandy was occupied in the 2nd Kandyan War, ending Sri Lankan independence until 1948 when Sri Lanka received its inependence from the British in 1948 at about the same time India was turned over to their new democratic process. 

We toured the Pettah Market Center near what's left of the old city of Colombo at almost midday. The morning activities had wound down and the vendors were kicking back getting ready for lunch.  We saw more bananas brought in from the countryside than I have ever seen in my life.  This banana room was chock full of bananas to be sent to all the local markets in and around Colombo.

To balance out the Buddhist religious sights in Colombo we walked to a Hindu Temple near our AirBnb just before puja time. Several drummers were drumming and worshippers gathering as we watched the pujas  made by the local Hindus who gathered there. The incredible carved statuary on every level of the pyramid shaped edifice is amazing with each deity and surrounding protectors painted in vivid colors.  You get a feeling of ancient faith and many hundreds of deities available for supplication depending on your specific needs, much like the saints in the Catholic religion.

Hindu Deities Temple carvings

As we had difficulty finding anything but a Chinese restaurant in the suburbs we were staying in, we walked a few blocks over and stumbled into a small Vietnamese restaurant.  Most Sri Lankans eat at home and restaurants are largely just for tourists.

On the second night of our Colombo stay we happened into a wonderful ornate Buddist temple on the way back from the Vietnamese restaurant. It had larger than life-size carvings of the Buddha,  The gold and richly hued statues glowed in the candlelight and it was a beautiful experience.  

Large golden Buddha feet

Rob in the doorway of the temple with huge Buddhas at the entrance

 We did not know it yet, but these two Buddhist temples were some of the most spectacular we would see in all of Sri Lanka and there are thousands.   


We were ready to head upcountry by train to the hill country again and set our sights for Kandy in the Central Province of Sri Lanka.  Kandy was the government center of the ancient kings of Ceylon. Today Kandy The Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. Declared a world heritage site in 1988 devotees come from all over the world to do puja here.
Situated in a valley surrounding a lake, Kandy is a very large sprawling city.While 
visitors come here to see the Temple of the Tooth, we found the highlights to be the 
Royal Botanical Garden and a zany artist's therapy house, Helga's Folly.

The Royal Botanical Gardens are worth spending a full day in. We were only 

there for 3 hours. These gardens used to be the actual grounds of the Royal Palace.
They are fabulous and colorful, well maintained and have every tree, flower, spice and 
plant that can be grown in this region of the world.

The Temple of the Tooth and World Buddhist Museum

We went to a World Buddhist Museum which had Buddha statues contributed from every Buddhist country in the world, before visiting the Temple of the Tooth. The museum held beautiful Buddha statues and replicas of the Buddhist temples like Swedagon in Burma and altars from Lhasa in Tibet. 
Plumeria and lotus flowers are temple offerings

We gathered for the evening puja along with a crowd of Buddhist devotees from all over the world.  While the Temple of the Tooth itself has little to recommend it other than the actual relic of the Lord Buddha's tooth, it is the centerpiece of Kandy and a prominent pilgrimage site of the Buddhist religion. All ages, young school children, their parents and grandparents gathered for the monk's blessing at dusk. The devotion of the attendees was impressive. Upon exiting the temple at dusk, we were treated to the flight of thousands of bats who found this the perfect time to head out in search of food for the night.

Unfortunately, we were not in Kandy at the right time to see the annual procession known as the Esala Perahera, in which one of the inner caskets used for covering the tooth relic of Buddha is taken in a grand procession through the streets of the city. This casket is carried on a richly decorated royal elephant

The Cultural Triangle: Dambullah, Sigiriya and Pollanaruwa

Hiring a driver from Kandy we headed North to Sigiriya and the Cultural Triangle in the middle of Sri Lanka. We stopped at the Dambullah Caves. Ancient and impressive is the best way of describing the over 80 caves found in Dambullah that house some of the oldest Buddhist statues in the country along with remarkable cave paintings.

This was truly a spectacular find on our cultural journey that took us to many Buddhist sites. These caves, that once housed people before Buddhism came to Sri Lanka, have preserved these Buddha statues and the many boddhisatvas, gods and goddesses here since the earlly days of Buddhism in the 1st century BCE.  

 We ended our day at Sigiriya Water Cottages, another great find on Booking.com.  This peaceful countryside retreat was our base camp for both climbing the monolithic Sigiriya Lion Rock and going to see elephants roaming freely along the tank at Minneriya National Park. 

The monolithic rock that sticks up in the jungle of trees is the Sri Lankan equivalent of Acoma's Sky City in New Mexico.  However, this was where King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) choose to build his new capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. 

We started early to miss the heat of the day having remembered climbing a similar rock in scorching hot temperatures in Burma.  There were already crowds so we basically followed a line of tourists up the stairs that climbed the face of this immense rock.

Huge lion's feet carved at the base of the stairs lead up to the top portion of the rock and thus the name Lion Rock.  

Despite my concern about needing to take a Xanax to climb the rock, I was fine. metal hand railings had been installed all the way up to the top of the rock.  Huge water cisterns had been built to gather water and support the people who lived atop the rock.  It did hold a prominent overlook of the entire countryside which had a defensive benefit.  

 For whatever reason, traveling in India and Sri Lanka is a great opportunity to just let the days unfold and await the mystery of a place.  Rather than a dedicated agenda of where we were going and what we had to see, we floated from place to place and event to event drawn by listening, watching and inquiring of others.  

Returning to Sigiriya Water Cottages we saw a large black open-top jeep being washed by the driver. We inquired and found that he took tourists to Minneriya National Park for wildlife viewing.  Because elephants are my totem and something I did not want to miss seeing in the wild, we arranged to go the next afternoon. Seeing the elephants roaming free in the wild there proved to be a high point of this trip.  

On the way down the rock, we passed tourists widely skirting a snake charmer with his cobra. The vendors lined up at the base of the rock selling cold drinks and trinkets.  We sat in the shade of a tree and watched life unfold sipping on our lukewarm sodas.

From the open top of our jeep, we watched elephants emerge from the forest toward the Minneriya tank to drink and bathe in the evening.  They move peacefully and deliberately, watching for their young. Having long ago established an easy truce with the jeeps lined up on the road to see them, we tourists were largely ignored as scenery.  It is a delight to see the elephants move freely, not shackled by heavy chains and at home in their natural environment. Sri Lanka once had tens of thousands of elephants roaming the jungles and hillsides.  Now there are only 2,000-3,000 wild elephants here and only about 250 more in captivity.  

The young ones here are just as frisky and noisy as any two year old would be. The older elephants patiently watch over them at a distance while systematically gathering grass with their trunks and eating it.  Getting to see these elephants in the wild is a  pleasure and makes one want to contribute to their continued peaceful and unfettered existence.  



Pollanaruwa is a World Heritage site covering hundreds of acres, best seen by bicycle. 
We rented bikes somewhat rusty but functional and headed off in a northern direction through the grounds populated by dozens of temples that were built around 1070.
It is the second most ancient of Sri Lankan royal grounds.
The temples built here while large are not particularly ornate. They have been redeemed from jungle growth for tourists to appreciate. The most spectacular Buddhist statues are found on the Northern end of the Park at the Gal Vihara.

The grounds are peaceful and even with tourists you feel somewhat alone in this quiet ancient ruins.  We spent a rather hot day working our way to the far end and were richly rewarded with beautiful carvings of Buddha at the end of our journey. 

The devout spent years creating the huge reclining Buddha that spanned about 40 yards.  The peaceful countenance of the Buddha made us ready to return for a late afternoon nap at our guesthouse.  Spent from a long and full day we returned to the busy streets of the city to take our bikes back.

Beautiful Huge Reclining Buddha

Moonstones carved at the entry to temples
Elephants carved into Temple

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Kerala India: Spice of Life

 The adventure of life is to learn. The purpose of life is to grow. The nature of life is to change. The challenge of life is to overcome. The essence of life is to care. The opportunity of like is to serve. The secret of life is to dare. The spice of life is to befriend. The beauty of life is to give.                 
William Arthur Ward

Ancient Chinese Fishing Nets Still Used

Fort Cochin

Trade and nature’s bounty of spices and hardwoods lured seamen to the Malabar Coastline in the Arabian Sea starting in ancient times with the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and finally the English. It was not until 70 years ago when Indian Independence from their last colonial masters was declared in 1947, that the yoke of conquerors and exploiters was finally thrown off were Indians free to manage their own affairs. But exploitation still exists within India’s own class and caste system.

Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew.  These foreign
intruders and intrepid merchants brought their religions and made efforts to convert the indigenous people, while plundering their lands for wood and spices.   Their success can be seen in the stew of religions that live and work more or less peacefully side by side here.  Hindus, Muslims and Christians predominate here today, with Buddhists, Jains and other religions in the minority.  All faiths seem to exist in a peaceful if not tolerant harmony.  

The Portuguese built a fort here to maintain their supremacy and guard their warehouses that stored the bounty of pepper and spices from the highlands. Spices were brought to this port town to send off in ships to flavor dishes across Europe. Pepper, originally so valuable, became such a competitive trade good that in time as more and more ships docked and filled their hulls with pepper, the cost of the spice was drive down and finally commoditized. Other spices were traded, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, chilis, fenugreek, turmeric, vanilla, along with pepper. These spices left these shores to flavor palates all over the world as the trade in spices and demand flourished. At one point pepper become so abundant that it became as common as salt and was considered a standard flavoring for all savory foods put on the table. Initially, the competition was fierce, but as time went on tons of pepper was harvested. So much that the price was driven down so low that in time it served simply as ship ballast for other Indian trade goods like textiles and silk that became more popular with merchants.

Door to Godown
We saw the Dutch godowns (warehouses) built in the 1700s to house and dry spices before shipping. Huge concrete floors between warehouse buildings were used as the drying area. Ginger, for example, was limed (lime + ash) to aid in its drying before shipment. Peppercorns were spread on the floors and walked on by women to rotate them as they dried in the hot coastal sun.
Women Sorting Ginger

Ginger Drying on the Godown Pavement


From the coastal port of Cochin we take the train up into the hills known here as The Western Ghats for a bit of respite from the 95-degree heat. This is where all the tea and many of the famous Kerala spices are grown and the area includes the Cardamom Hills.

On the Cochin-Munnar train we got a first class seat which was very inexpensive.  We found ourselves winding higher and higher up from the plains into the jungle-covered hillside. Elephants once roamed these jungles freely but now only a few are left to roam, most are employed in one way or another in towns and as tourist attractions.

The British had a railway built by Indian labor from the coast in Cochin to the top of the mountains of Kerala at Munnar. It served as a transportation system to bring the tea down from the mountain to the ports and ferry the British posted in Kerala here up to the cooler climes of this British Hill Station.

Awestruck is probably the best description of our response to the verdant hand-sculpted greenery of the miles and miles of tea plantations. Each tea plant is handpicked multiple times year round of only the newest growth. The leaves are then sent for processing into different grades of black tea, with only the newest growth separated out for green tea. Green tea does not go through the fermentation process black tea requires and thus retains its health benefits. 

In Munnar we toured the tea plantations and processing plants. The tea plantations were the center of activity for the British who replaced the Dutch East India Company as colonial masters here. Beyond the railroad they built a pulley system, much like a ski lift, that took the processed tea up over the mountain and down to the railroad to be carried out to the world market.

 The indigenous Indians were conscripted to work in the fields where everything was company based: food, education, healthcare and payment for labor. Then as now, the payment to work all day in the hot sun doing the repetitive work of picking tea is one of the lowest paid jobs. Today there are about 600 women pickers and 200 men pruning and doing the heavy lifting of digging and planting on every tea estate. 

On each estate, the women pickers are paid 320 rupees/day or about $5. Here as elsewhere, men are paid slightly more. There are a total of 24 tea estates in Kerala strung along the mountain ridges that border Kerala from the state of Tamil Nadu.  With Indian Independence the government took ownership of these estates and different private interests ran them. Tata, the largest corporation in India, leased the tea estate we visited. In recent years we understand they turned over a majority of it to the worker’s ownership. Thus healthcare, education, and the basic benefits are covered for the workers on the estate much like a communist state.

At best it is a low wage, monotonous job, but employs a large percentage of the locals and gives them basic benefits.  

The tea plantations are a marvel of man and nature. They are beautiful, verdant and perfectly hand trimmed.  They serve as a green corridor to the jungle ecosystem that surrounds them.

The High Road to Thekaddy 

 Early morning found us traveling south along the mountain ridges to Thekaddy on a road that required we were on it by 7 am due to construction closure the rest of the day.  Our driver picked us up at 6 am while still dark. We set out in the mist and moonlight and quickly left the villages around Munnar. As the light started to appear on the horizon we were high up in the plantations with no villages around.  Our driver told us that while there were not a lot of elephants left in the surrounding jungles, the ones that were there were wild and still roamed their ancient paths through the tea plants. We stopped to take photos and were delighted to spy three elephants roaming through the tea plants. 

At another stop at a Buddhist shrine our driver told us how a male elephant had attacked and killed a male worshipper who had stopped here to make puja, while his amazed wife sat in the car and watched in horror.

The Kerala border is shared on the East with the State of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is currently experiencing a major drought which has left farmers so distraught many are committing suicide because the cannot feed their family. That scarcity is less visible on the Western side of these ghats because of rainfall, but the locals here still complain about the shortage of rainfall. 

Wild Elephants in the Tea Fields

Morning mist over river and valleys

Thekaddy- Periyar National Park

Basil at our Thekaddy Homestay

We booked guesthouses usually no more than 2 days in advance using both TripAdvisor and Booking.com. Generally, we were pleased and got what we paid for in our modest accommodations. The Thekaddy Homestay we booked as our destination that morning turned out to be in the small town of Kumily on the outskirts of Periyar National Park. This five-room homestay was run by a Muslim family. All the surrounding businesses: ayurvedic massage, souvenir shops, restaurants were owned by relatives of the family.

This little lady, probably my age, was begging on the street. Her size and stature gives you some idea of the variances in our life and health. 
In retrospect, some of the best places we stayed were at guesthouses owned and run by Muslims.  They are the businessmen of this part of the world and seem to excel in their business endeavors. The slightly older father of the house was pleasant but perfunctory. The mother was younger, submissive, and graciously plied us with masala chai anytime we interacted. Their son Basil, who helped run the establishment, was a young, internet-savvy entrepreneur. He and I had long talks about startups. He was excited to have a kindred internet mind to share his Hubloft business idea with and to get some encouragement. He has few internet entrepreneurial buddies to interact with locally and so operates in somewhat of a vacuum. His current sideline is working an Airbnb promotions job while he builds Hubloft, a place that helps small guesthouses advertise and widen their presence on the net.
This sadhu was one of many devout Hindus.

Truly the experiences of travel are not only the feeling of getting out of your comfort zone but are also embodied in the people you interact with. Whether it is someone approaching you to beg for money and you don’t shy away, a sadhu sitting on the sidewalk or a smile exchanged with a person on an overcrowded bus or train as you both hang on for dear life we are ambassadors. I am always struck with the difference in the abundance and resources we have versus those in most of the world. We take this for granted and it is travel that makes you appreciate all we have and at least for me spurs me to share. 

Periyar National Park
is India’s southernmost National Park. It was created in the 1980’s to protect the ecosystem and wildlife in these Western Ghats of Kerala. The idea of not shooting but protecting wildlife is a fairly new one in India and in many cases it came too late. There are almost no tigers or big cats left in the park. The elephant population has dwindled down to a precious few. Nonetheless, we were hopeful of seeing wild elephants roaming around in this National Park so we signed up for a trek in the park. 

Getting up early in the morning we met our two guides at Park Headquarters with the hope to see animals early in the day while they were still seeking water.  One of the Park guides who accompanied us carried a pump-action rifle strapped on his shoulder. Our group of eight was told not to wear bright colors and to keep quiet if we wanted to see the animals. We moved out along the truck tracks that led into the jungle. Monkeys appeared and several birds. 

We hustled to keep up with the fast-moving group, glad as always for the workouts we do every week that allows us to manage in the 90-degree weather and keep up with the younger tourists.

The guide stopped us when we came upon a group of wild water buffalo. Silently we waited for them to clear off the track. Having seen many water buffalo domesticated in Asia, their presence was not thrilling. We watched the ground and kept our eyes open for snakes. We had read that the Malabar Pit Viper is one of the most poisonous snakes to be found in the world and this kind of jungle is their terrain. We reached the terminus of our 1-hour trek with no mishap and came to a park station built in the jungle on the edge of Periyar tank. It was positioned here as a great place to watch the coming and going of animals to get water. It also served for Park employees to stay inside the Park and monitor the activities of guests and poachers. This explained the two-wheel track we had followed.

Periyar Tank- Man made with original hardwoods still in the water
The younger guide, who was from an indigenous local Indian tribe that has lived off this jungle for generations, shared that some of their best poaching monitors are former poachers. We ate our prepared breakfast of rice and curry and drank the water we carried while we awaited the bamboo raft that would carry us across the lake. The bamboo rafting involved sitting on a raft of bamboo strapped together while a guide paddled and we watched the lakeside for evidence of animals. There were lots of birds, ibises and egrets and some monkeys, but nothing larger showed itself.  In fact, the only elephant we had seen in the park was at a distance near the park entrance when we had arrived by bus the day before. It was so far off and the mist by the lake so heavy that it appeared more like a hologram so that tourists would not be disappointed.  

The day had heated up considerably by the time we got back to the Park station and readied our selves for a return trek through the jungle. We saw little that we had not seen previously but the best part was that I was able to chat with the younger guide and learn about how his tribe and family had been moved out of the Park and relocated to land on its fringe, thus changing their centuries-old custom of living off the jungle. Speaking English was his ticket to a future in tourism. We walked by some of the designated village areas on the way out of the Park. One can see that basic housing was built for the transplants by the government, but their livelihoods are no doubt as endangered as the wildlife in the Park. Education is the hope for the future of these folks.

Ayurvedic Massage: Slip Sliding Away

After our trek through the jungle, we got back in time for our Ayurveda massage appointment we had scheduled the previous day with Dr. Rajan Gurukkal. Our driver had suggested his Kalari Massage Center, so we had stopped in the day before and made an appointment and Dr. Gurukkal took our pulses. So when we showed up for our appointment, we found that he had mixed different oils for each of us because we, of course, have different pulses and health needs.

Rob was booked for massage by the Doctor, I by his longtime female assistant. These are same-sex massages, as it is not like a Thai massage with a "happy ending" offered. With some trepidation, Rob had complied with my suggestion that he get an ayurvedic treatment. We were after all in the heartland of Ayurveda with all the herbs and spices and the ancient knowledge of health treatments associated with their use.

We were each led into our respective rooms, with the massage table covered in heavy duty clear plastic, and told to strip. I was given a cotton string loincloth, more like a thong, leaving all else exposed to the oil. The masseuse (a practitioner named Sita in her 50s) had about a half gallon of oil that she proceeded to bath and massaged me with for the next hour. She started having me sit up to massage my head and gave my scalp and hair a thorough infusion of oil and rubbing. Then she had me lay face down on the table and massaged all areas of my face working down my body to my feet rubbing and kneading in the oil into my muscles. When I was thoroughly saturated on that side she asked me to flip over "carefully."  It was no small effort not to slide off the table, but I complied. She proceeded to work the rest of the oil into the muscles and tendons of my neck, torso, and limbs down to the bottom of my feet. I had to lose all preconceived notions of massage and just turn myself over to the process. Sita had literally drenched me in oil.

Because the ambient temperature of the room and the whole of Southern India is always in the high 80s to low 90s I was warm but not uncomfortable. Even though I felt like a greased goose ready for cooking, my muscles yielded to the gentle rubbing. I listened to Sita, learning a bit about her family and responding to her inquiry about who I was and where I came from, the two questions always asked first in any encounter. 

When finished, Sita put a stool next to the massage table and had me sit up while she wiped all the oil off my feet with newspaper to absorb it, before I stepped onto the stool. She led me carefully across the hallway to a shower room where a huge tub of warm rose water had been prepared. Handing me a small green medicated soap she instructed me to rub it all over while she slowly poured the warm rose water over me by the bucketful. The smell of the rosewater was heavenly and as the oil began to come off it felt cleansing. When the tub was empty she handed me a towel and told me to dress, but not to wash my hair for 24 hours to get the most benefit.  Returning to the massage room, I dressed, left a nice tip for her and went out to the doctor’s office to wait for Rob, feeling refreshed. 

Doctor Gurukkal came out with his sparkling smile followed by Rob, looking equally relaxed. Unlike many herbal shops that offer Ayurvedic treatments, the Doctor did not try to sell us a variety of herbs and potions. There were many pictures of the bodybuilders engraved with their thanks, framed with the Doctor smiling next to them. We found out these were all men he had trained and advised. 
Rob then asked him about the many knives he had displayed around his office. It seems Dr. Gurukkal was a legend in the martial arts community in this part of India for his martial arts prowess and training. The knives displayed in his office were from his many years of practice in an ancient martial art. Throughout his life, he had practiced martial arts using these knives, traditional weapons of the masters. What had ended his martial arts career was having his kneecap sliced through by a knife, when he failed to jump high enough to miss its blade. While still built like an athlete, solidly muscled and strong, he was proud to share that he was turning 70 soon and expected to live past 100 as his father had. From the looks of him, we expect he will. His radiance was captured in the pictures we took with each of us. Our relaxed and happy faces attested to the success of the ayurvedic treatment. In his professional last words, he asked us to remember to post a positive review of the massage on TripAdvisor, which of course we were happy to do. We went back to our small guesthouse happy a little oilier and took a late afternoon nap. 

 The Backwaters- Lake Venabad

Coming down the mountain from Thekaddy/Kumily, we headed west to Lake Venabad in the famed Backwaters, south of Cochin. Traditional reed covered boats ply this huge inland lake with fisherman and tourists. The waters lead inland up hundreds of channels.   We broke out of our usual $35-45/nightly guesthouse fees, splurged and booked a "resort" in the Backwaters for two nights. Our accommodation was a walled resort that faced the Lake to the West. The grounds were beautifully maintained and the guests treated with solicitous attention by the local village people who staffed it. Other than the fact that the rooms were larger than most of our other accommodations and the fees included a swimming pool and a Backwaters boat trip, it was "very expensive" by our standards and perhaps not worth the additional money $120/night.

We again found that as is typical of  "resorts," their internet wasn’t as good at most of our little guesthouses. But the views were delightful and the grounds a wonderful place to watch the boats ply the waters, pelicans dive for fish while shorebirds swooped over the lake. 

Reed covered boat

We rented bikes and road out terrified sharing the road with trucks, buses, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians, as well as a few other intrepid bikers. We got off the main road as quickly as possible and explored the dirt paths of the backwater channels that went in all directions from the lake. Boats lined the channels, clearly the preferred method of transportation here. Women bathed in the water. Kids walked home from school along backwater paths. Houses lined the channels with a hum of activity, cutting wood, more construction, cooking, chatting, hanging out clothes and just going about the business of everyday life. 
We stopped to take pictures of kids at recess in the schoolyard. I especially liked this group of beautiful and somewhat shy Indian girls who were happy to practice their English on me. "Hello. Where are you from? What is your name?"

We always like to save the beach as a reward for the cultural touring and physically challenging aspects of our trip that we like to accomplish first. Having done the museums and the ancient city of Cochin, the tea plantations of Munnar, the Cardamom Hills and high mountain ridges bordering Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the jungles and elephants at Periyar and the Backwaters, we were ready to hit the beach in our last 5 days in Kerala, India. We hopped aboard a train heading south to Varkala Beach. The second class sleeping compartment was the only available space, so we wedged in with our bags on seats already filled when we came aboard and made the best of a three-hour train trip south, sweating togetherness with the locals also in transit.

Trains are a cheap way to travel in India but sorely taxed by the growing population. Unless you buy first class tickets in advance, you do not get the luxury of air-conditioned compartments and assigned seats.  Overcrowding is a given.

Varkala Beach 

A beach vacation holds little to recommend it for culture unless you count the many vendors who wish to get your attention and rupees. "Where are you from? Madam, please come look." This enterprising woman wore the traditional dress of her village and was happy to have her picture taken with you if you purchased something. 

We found ourselves getting up at 6 am again to watch the fishing boats come in at the nearby fishing village just north of Varkala Beach.  We arrived at a real fish market on the beach as most of the boats had already come in and the process of haggling for prices of the different catch was underway.  Big fish like barracuda are not as common as a much smaller catch.  It seems the locals are destined to eat smaller and smaller fish as the larger fish get sent to restaurants for tourists and the wealthy to eat.  There were lots of sardine-like fish and cuttlefish also squid. Enterprising women were busy selling and laying out fish to dry among the sea of boats that had come ashore.  When you looked at the number of boats it really gives one pause to see how much of the world depends on the fish for food and a livelihood and how the catch is becoming smaller and smaller while at the same time more competitive.  

It was this big!

Boats Ashore at Dawn

A sea of humanity counts on the catch

Drying fish on the beach

A local peacefully walks the beach once the sun worshippers have left.

A mother holds her child who has had surgery for a cleft palate. 

 Ganesh is often seen as a major deity worshipped throughout Kerala.  One of the most loved in the Hindy pantheon of He is the Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles of both material and spiritual kinds. 
Local color can always be found at the market. 

We spent lazy days on the Varkala beach under a rented umbrella interrupted only by trips to the seafood restaurants and the Coffee Den. It easily became a ritual we wanted to take with us. Reading books on the beach, playing cards and whiling away the hours with an iced coffee or awaiting our freshly caught seafood reminded us that we are definitely the idle rich. The disparity in resources and lifestyle is abundantly clear everywhere we travel. While we tip generously and give to every beggar and cripple that reaches out a hand, it does little to assuage our guilt given the abundance we have. The differences in lifestyle are demonstrable but at the core, our humanity is the same. The gap just continues to grow. Feeling helpless in the face of it, we make our pathetic little gestures of sharing.

So we leave Kerala having found it a wealth of spices and healing. The rich smells and memories abound: the ginger drying on the floor of the old Dutch godown, the manicured tea plantations, the brilliant greenery and aromas of spices in the Cardamom Hills, the cardamom, nutmeg and pepper all hand-picked, the mix of cinnamon and mystery spices stirred into my ayurvedic potion, the brilliance of the curry spices that add flavor to every meal and the comfort of a cup of masala chai after a long day. 

The people too have contributed to this rich blend of memories. Living side by side in a harmony that is exemplary to the world, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains all worship their God(s) and perform their pujas and rituals without the fear that is found elsewhere in the world. This inclusiveness can be seen in these pictures symbolizing the different deities of each religion found in restaurants, on tuk-tuks and buses. In this rich blend of spice and gentle harmony of faiths, we may truly have found the spice of life.

Drinking tea at the tea processing plant

Muslim family from Kashmir who hosted us at Varkala

Coffee Den and Kathy joining The Last Supper

Datura Flowers

Spices Galore!