Kerala Tourism Photos

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Thank you Kerala Tourism for asking me to update Nancy’s India Blog with three of your photos!

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Travelers and nature lovers from across the world travel to the Kerala Backwaters to see a quieter, more serene side of India. The backwaters are comprised of 44 rivers, a vast network of lakes, and 1500 km of labyrinthine canals. There are over 300 species of birds, floating markets and the famous snake boat races.

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Click on Nancy’s India Blog to read about my trip to Kerala and to see the photos as part of the blog. Click here to see an enlarged version of the photos and scroll through the backwaters.

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The Art of Living Ashram: What’s It All About, Part 2

The next three days were spent with a group of 40 people participating in the Introductory Course – people from all over India and some foreigners as well. The Art of Living operates in over 150 countries including an ashram in Montreal, Canada and a local center in Vancouver. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s goal is to spread peace by teaching people how to lead a stress-free life and by getting involved in humanitarian projects.The three-day course was a snapshot of what the ashram is all about. We learned pranayama (breathing techniques), meditation, yoga, and discussed all sorts of questions about one’s self. We learned about each other and did some amazing activities that really bonded the group in only three days.

The grounds were nice with lots of trees and each evening at 6:30pm everyone in the ashram gathered at the amphitheatre for Satsang. People sang songs (bhajans) and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar would come on stage. People were thrilled to see him and extremely reverent. On the second night the stage was filled with about 40 religious leaders from all over India – Sikh, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist etc. They had all gathered at the ashram that day for a religious/peace conference.

At satsang Guruji led a short meditation session and everyone would participate. He also answered questions from the audience. His voice was unique and calming. He was not one of those charismatic, cult type leaders trying to sway everyone to follow him. But he seemed genuinely concerned about teaching and spreading peace. As he said – India has so much knowledge. So many people wanted him to stay in India and just teach the Indian people but he said no, he felt it was his responsibility to share knowledge with the entire world.

As far as the course went it was pretty good, somewhat thought-provoking and I would be curious to know what the second course is all about. But it was so hot at this time of year and the hall we were in was a sweat box even with fans. Plus there were no chairs and we had to sit on the floor all day. For the breathing and meditation we had to sit cross-legged (sukhasana) or on the knees, sitting on the ankles (vajrasana). I do both of these in yoga and vajrasana we do until our feet turn blue (5-10 min. and it’s supposed to be good for you) – but to be in these positions for 1/2 hr – 1 1/2 hrs is a killer. Add the heat and I couldn’t stand it.

So the heat and sitting was a problem and then there was the food at the dining hall. I like Indian food, but it was mush – no texture at all. One day of it and then I had to opt out and go to the little cafeteria where I could buy fresh fruit juice, fruit salad, and grilled veg sandwiches. But I didn’t really look forward to standing in line for that food either because people were always butting in and you had to fight your way to the front of the line. It just boggled my mind that in a place like this where everyone is learning about peace and giving, people could still butt in front of others and think only of themselves.

Oh, and then there was the shower. There is no actual shower stall, the water just goes onto the floor in the bathroom and the drain is on the same wall as the shower head but on the other side of the toilet. There is a squeegee which you use to guide the water on the floor to the drain. Ummm, I didn’t really get it so didn’t really shower. Heat, no shower, no food, no sleep, no chairs = no fun.

A couple other things they could do is get a better lock system on the doors – they use locks like ones used in high school. Also, please give everyone a map – it’s a big place and it was too hot to be walking around aimlessly trying to find the hall, the dining hall, and accommodation without a map.

The Art of Living definitely has its positives and its negatives. Michael had a very positive experience and he will most likely do the second course. I am very curious about it but I’m not sure that I’m ready to go “inside the gates” again just yet. Many, many people all over the world follow Sri Sri’s teaching and I’m sure they are better people for it. If you are thinking of doing it – just do it, give 100% and see what you can learn in just three days.

The Art of Living Ashram: Getting There, Part 1

Last week I decided to stay at an ashram. I wasn’t planning to do it, I didn’t feel like I was searching for anything or really wanted to go to an ashram – I didn’t really need that “Eat, Pray, Love” experience. But Michael and another person I know had gone for the three-day introductory course and said it was “life changing,” and “one of the best things to do in India.”

The Art of Living is an international NGO, just outside of Bangalore. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is the ashram Guru and he happened to be at the ashram while I was there which was a bonus. Everyone simply calls him Guruji, meaning “one who has great knowledge or wisdom.”

My course started Friday morning so I had to be there Thursday night. Michael had warned me that the food and rooms were very basic. Our driver was in the hospital and the temporary driver assured me he knew where the ashram was. I left home at 6:45pm expecting a 1 1/2 hr drive and wasn’t too worried when he stopped to ask directions after one hour. He did a u-turn and said he had missed the turn off – no problem. But after a while he did another u-turn and then another u-turn at the same place as the first time. Of course it was dark and the road was busy, and there we were going around in circles.

I told him to pull over – I phoned Michael to get directions and the driver phoned my regular driver who was in the hospital. After a few phone calls and a short lecture “don’t tell me you know where it is when you don’t…” we got on our way and finally found the right exit. Between phone calls to Michael and the driver in hospital we arrived at 9:30pm.

The place was packed with people checking in. It turned out there was a teachers refresher course going on that weekend too – there were hundreds of them. I got to go to the foreigner check in (no line up), I also got to pay the foreigner price of $200 U.S. for the 3 days (not bad) but nationals probably paid a fraction of that.

Got checked in at 10:00pm and then onto a shuttle bus to the accommodation. I was the only one who got off at the “Nandhi” building and went to look for #14. The lower ones were all in the 100’s, so I went upstairs but they were the 200’s. Finally saw a girl and asked her and she said “Nandhi building – you have premium accommodation” and she pointed across the street.

So off I went to a tall round building, up the spiral staircase lugging my luggage and sweating all the way to the top floor to #14. There I found three guys standing with towels and sheets, which I thought was weird – I just assumed the building would be all female. They informed me that they were there to make up my bed but there was someone inside who had locked the door and they couldn’t wake her up (it’s a triple room). So I knock, they knock, we call out…and every other door on the floor opened and people came to see what the commotion was. But we couldn’t wake this person up.

Finally I suggested they phone reception and get me another room, which they did. Down we all went – it’s now 10:30pm – and we walked to the furthest building where once again the door was locked and we knocked, but luckily the woman inside woke up and opened the door – I’m sure she was not impressed, but then again – neither was I.

The room was very basic with two single beds, bedside tables, a small bathroom, an outdoor sink and a fan that was whirling as loud and as fast as helicopter blades. Quick introductions and then into bed. I couldn’t help but wonder about that “premium room.” Even though it was a triple – was it better?

My class didn’t start til 9:30am Friday morning so I set my alarm for 8:00am and slept restlessly. At six one of the lights went on – my roommate was up. I closed my eyes and turned over. Then I heard her doing breathing exercises, similar to what I do in yoga. Then it went quiet but the light was still on. I rolled over and opened one eye – she was sitting cross-legged on her bed facing me, eyes closed, with both arms straight up in the air – welcome to the Art of Living!

Last Day at Hampi

On our last morning we got up to go to Anegondi but when got to the river (about 9:00am) the coracles hadn’t started running yet. Disappointed but we ended up going for an excellent walk from the Vittala Temple to the Virupaksa Temple.

It is an easy 45 minute walk through temple ruins and boulders and then along the river.

From the river the path leads up to Hampi Bazaar near the Nandi Statue. So we had an excellent breakfast of banana, chocolate, coconut pancakes in the town and then back to our hotel to ready ourselves (mentally) for the drive home.

We went a different route home, near the town of Bellary, and the road was more of a country road but very little traffic. So it was an uneventful drive and took about 7 hrs to get home. Lesson learned (from the 11hr drive to Hampi) – don’t travel at night and we probably won’t be driving anywhere further than Mysore (3 hrs).

All in all Hampi was a really good trip, lots of ruins, lots of boulders to climb and a nice laid back feel to the town of Hampi Bazaar. A couple notable and casual restaurants:

  • Mango Tree has terraced seating overlooking the river – good thali’s.
  • New Shanti

Hampi (Day 3)

On the third day we spent quite a bit of time at the Vittala Temple, a sprawling set of carved pavillions, gateways and towers. The ‘piece de resistance’ is the stone chariot made from granite blocks.

Outside the temple gates is a rectangular pond surrounded by ancient pillars where we had a little time to relax and find some shade.

And the boulders in this area begged climbing and were the perfect place for Craig to try out his new slingshot. We climbed up here for sunset.

We spent the day visiting many smaller temples, so many stories to tell in the carvings.

We planned to get a coracle (circular boat) over to Anegondi and followed some sadhus (wandering Indian holy men) down to the river. Here we watched two men put their motorbikes in the coracle, then they got on and sat on the bikes. Next the four sadhus got in, a bunch of other passengers and the two rowers.

I know, I know, we could have fit in too but of course I wanted to get a shot of them sailing away. We were hot and tired and decided to leave Anegondi for the next day.

Hampi (Day 2)

First I have to say that despite the extremely long drive to Hampi on the Thursday night (into Fri. morning), the kids were excellent. Craig tried to sleep through it and Alanna suffered in silence. Once in a while in the last couple hours she would say, “my nerves are getting as thin as cheese wire.” Our driver, Balakrishna, didn’t complain at all either. Michael and I – well, we may have had a moment or two – but we actually tried to laugh through it at the end. Maybe we were just delirious.

Friday morning we had a late start and got under way just before noon. The ancient ruins of Hampi are on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. The ruins are spread over 25 square km. The topography is straight out of The Flintstones and Bedrock City – huge boulders one on top of another are strewn all over the countryside.

We drove to the little hippie town of Hampi bazaar and started by going to Virupaksha Temple which is still used as a religious temple to this day. In fact the kids and I were blessed by the temple elephant, Lakshmi.

We took a walk up the rocky and somewhat slippery hill above the temple for some nice views.

Everywhere you go there are temples. Here we came across a family at an underground temple having a picnic. They insisted on giving us some food and taking photos.

Lotus Mahal is one of the most beautiful buildings and the grounds are clean with lots of trees. It is a great example of Hindu and Islamic architecture.

 

Hampi (Day 1)

Most people take the overnight train to Hampi. Get on the train at 10:45pm, sleep and arrive in Hampi in the early morning. Simple. I don’t know anyone who has driven. For some reason, regrettably, we chose to drive.

We left our house at 3:00pm and planned to be in Hampi six hours later at 9:00pm.
It took two hours just to get out of Bangalore. Highway construction. Traffic jam.
Picture a one way road with stone meridians on either side. Huge trucks and buses like these ones were all around us:

Traffic just stopped all of a sudden. No where to go.
What are they thinking – trucks try to turn around – they maneuver back and forth, inch by inch and everyone moves out of their way. They actually succeed and then proceed to try to drive head on against the traffic up the one way street. Chaos.

Finally a break in the meridian and we were on our way. Once we got past the construction the #4 Hwy was good. We seemed to be making up time and thought we would still get to Hampi by ten.

Then we turned onto Hwy #13 – a narrow two lane road full of potholes, with tons of oncoming traffic, buses and trucks. Where were they all coming from? Where were they all going?

We made it to a large round-about, just outside of Hampi at 10:30pm and phoned the hotel for directions. Off we went, taking the first exit. We came onto a small, but very long bridge, and stopped in our tracks again. Right behind a huge truck with non stop oncoming traffic. This truck looked like it was just parked there – no lights, no movement and we couldn’t see around it.

Finally a break in the oncoming traffic and cars and auto rickshaws darted into the other lane to pass. I shouted, “follow them, go quick.” And we did. But then we saw what was in front of the truck – more trucks and buses lined up for miles. We were shocked at them all but we were passing them, we were moving!

It was short-lived of course when the cars and rickshaws ahead of us stopped head on against a bus with a line up behind it. We all pulled over and opposite traffic could move, but we were stuck again.

This continued for some time. At 12:00am we made it off the bridge but still jammed in. We couldn’t figure out what was going on. Our driver pulled over and asked directions again. He gets back in and says, “We have been misguided – we must go back to the roundabout and take another exit.”

“We are not going back,”  I said.
Michael looked at the GPS on his phone and said, “No, there is a road ahead that we can take. Keep going.”

To make a long story short…we came upon a policeman who was telling everyone to turn around and go back. No explanation and we never found out why. So now everyone is making u-turns on this narrow road and going back – more chaos. We got back to the roundabout at 1:00am and made it to the hotel at 1:30am.

The guy at the front desk of the KSTDC Hotel Mayura Bhuvaneshwari was a gem. No emotion, no facial expression. He had no idea who we were even though we had prepaid. There was no reservation book.

Finally got the rooms sorted out but had to go back and ask the guy for towels, soap and toilet paper. It was sad and to quote Lonely Planet’s description of the hotel “soulless.”

Andaman Islands (Part 6): Port Blair

We left Havelock on the 2:00pm ferry. This time we specified that we wanted seats on the upper deck and all together. Last time our seats were all over the place although we managed to find some close together. In hindsight we should have taken the newer catamaran which is a comfortable one hour trip vs the two-hour older ferry.Arrived in Port Blair and stayed overnight at TSG Emerald View Hotel. It’s a 2 1/2 star hotel and it felt clean and luxurious compared to Barefoot at Havelock. We had an excellent meal at the hotel restaurant, including huge tiger prawns, Chinese chili chicken and more at very reasonable prices.

Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the sound and light show at the Andaman Cellular Jail and in the morning when we went there hoping to tour it, it was closed for Good Friday.

Port Blair was stinking hot and humid. The kids went back to the room and Michael and I went for a walk through the town. Very pleasant little town, lots of little shops, temples and quaint cottage style houses painted in blues and greens. Lot of trees and statues as well.

Off to the airport to catch our Kingfisher flight to Chennai and once we got there we were told that our next flight, Chennai – Bangalore had been cancelled. We would have to wait there for six hours for the next one at 8:30pm. Not too happy about that so when we got to Chennai we went to book in and asked if there was any other flight that we could take. Much to our relief Kingfisher put us on a Jet Airways flight that left at 5:30pm. So kudos to Kingfisher, I was impressed with that. But I must say the Jet Airways plane was much nicer and took only 40 min. vs one hour.

Andaman Islands (Part 5): Waves

When we first arrived at Havelock it was almost a full moon. The waves at Beach #7 were pleasant for body surfing.

After the full moon and by the end of our week, waves were much bigger and crashing very close to the shore. Does the moon have anything to do with this?  There was also a 6.6 magnitude earthquake near the Andamans on March 30th, right in the middle of our stay. Perhaps that caused the larger waves?

Our kids love being out in these huge waves and so on our last day that’s what we did. We hung out at the beach with some people we had met from Mumbai. I started taking pictures and then this other family came along – a Mom with three young children and the grandparents. They start blowing up those inflatable rings for the kids to float in. Sure enough their first wave was their last. The wave was huge and sent the kids into the “washing machine” effect…and out they came. You can see them in the above picture just before getting pummelled. Others didn’t know whether to run towards the wave, or away from it!

…and here’s a couple more…

Andaman Islands (Part 4) – The Other Side of the Island

One day we ventured to the other side of the island. We walked through the forest to the main road and got a three-wheeler (tuk tuk). Havelock is a small island, but hilly and jungle like, with the occasional coconut grove or rice field.

We stopped at Village No.3 (exciting names on this island, eh?) to look around a bit. Village No.3 is found at a junction and is just a few touristy shops and local shops selling this and that. Not much to see so we carried on to the beach and passed multitudes of backpacker huts. Stopped at Emerald Gecko and walked to the beach. Very pretty, turquoise water but we could tell it was full of coral, nowhere to swim.

Lots of backpacker types with dreadlocks hangin’ on the beach. We walked from Emerald Gecko to Wild Orchid and stopped there for lunch. Had some really good Thai curries, fish and chips and the best cheese naan. The beach all the way was sandy, but narrow, even with the tide out.

We found lots of hermit crabs along the beach. They are so cool to watch. First they just look like shells but then you realize they are all moving.

The kids enjoyed them, as well as these tiny little crabs on Beach #7 that would dig a little hole and then make little balls made out of sand all around – super cool sand art.