Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Solangnon, San Juan, Siquijor Philippines 
Roosters crowing to assert their dominance. The grey clouds of early morn hang low over calm seas.  The beach quiet devoid of early morn foot traffic.  Palms stand sentinel and sway languidly in the breeze, the tops barely ruffled by the gentle breathe of wind.  The diligent, never ending sweeping of sand with short thatch brushes can be heard in the common terrace, punctuated by the rev of a scooter engine and the Filippino calling out in Tagalog to his family as he takes off on his work day. Orchids grow lush and beautiful out of abandoned coconut shells tended by hands that appreciate their beauty.

I sit curled up on a cushioned bamboo chair on the covered porch of our little apartment overlooking the calm sea and this morning tableau.  The hammock in the yard hangs drying from yesterday's rains, awaiting the sojourn of a wayfarer with a book or possibly intentions of afternoon slumber.

With low tide the shallow sand and coral sea shelf reaches far out so that one needs to walk quite a ways out to immerse even their knees in the water. Here the waves are but a gentle ripple, in sharp contrast to the crashing, pounding surf off the seaside cliffs at southern Negros in Siaton, Antulang.

We have three more weeks of Philippine beach explore before returning to the U.S.  

The eight days on Negros Oriental now a memory and the newness of this calm small island of Siquijor awaits our explorations. It seems much like Hawaii might have been in the early 50s before so much development took over the gentle calm, low key aspirations of the people.  A healthy, happy place where music drifts in and out of the background from speakers and the periodic song of the locals as they sing along to some 70s or 80s American love song.  Love is simpler and heartfelt here so the older American love songs seem to fit the Filipino temperment.

The  Philipinos are generally a happy people.  They invariably greet you with a smile and an open welcome, free of judgement and pleased to help in whatever way they can.  They are not overrun with tourism but accept those that come into their everyday life and are glad for the additional boost to the economy.  Businesses are small and there are hundreds of small storefronts, restaurants on the street,  vulcanizing shops for tires, gas stands sold in litre size glass Coca Cola bottles, all Mom and Pop businesses along the road.

We walked along the beach and on and off the island's Circumference Road to Coco Grove Resort about 2 miles yesterday. This is the one main road on the island and it is where motorbikes whiz by, an occasional tricycle and a periodic truck or car passes but by and large very little traffic. The people live mostly in concrete cement houses with open windows to the sea breeze have established themselves along the beachfront behind the rows of coconut palms and seaweed.  A few live up in the hills in the center of the island but the majority are along the shore.  Everyone you say hello to smiles back and or waves, both old and young.  It was hot walking on the broken down black coral along the tarmack of the island's circumference road. 

We stopped at Baha Bar a lovely Bar and restaurant built by two Brazilian mountain bikers.  The two story Bar had well kept gardens, palms and the beach beyond with a sunset viewing deck. When we tried to order a vegetable salad for lunch we were told no lunch because the kitchen was too busy preparing lunch for a group of 10 people who were seated in the dining room.  So you see capitalism is not paramount here, knowing your limitations and honoring them is.  The bartender his wife and child took care of matters upstairs in the bar and the kitchen toiled downstairs preparing heaping plates of fish and rice Filippino style. The barkeeper's two year old daughter fell asleep on the seat cushions arm and legs spread in total trust. 

We finally arrived at a gated heavily gardened and guarded resort, which was Coco Grove where I thought I had made our reservations. The ladies behind the desk were noble t find it and when they showed me their rates. Then I understood why they did not find a reservation. The rates are $100+night and that is 3-5 times what we are paying for our lovely fan room apartment with kitchen.  There is such a variety of housing options from the simplest homestay to these extensive resorts.  One rarely needs to have all the resort amenities when a simple bungalow will do and the ocean and beach are right outside your door.  We typically settle for something in the $20-30/night range and are glad to settle for a bed and a working fan.  Often one gets a lot of luxury in most places in Asia for that rate.

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.
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 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!

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!