Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Weekend in Hyderabad

Sometime during the middle of last week, we realized that we had reached the half-way point of our adventures in India. It is hard to believe we have been here ten weeks already! Time is moving more quickly now, and there is so much we still want to see and do. This past weekend, we decided to take advantage of another free Saturday to plan a whirlwind trip to Hyderabad. We chose the city not only because of its striking Islamic architecture and convenience by air (only an hour flight from Chennai), but also because another Fulbright exchange teacher, Greg Hellman, is working here, along with his family. We welcomed the chance to swap stories with him and his wife, Jennifer, and for our kids to meet theirs.

Our trip started off quite inauspiciously (never a good thing in India!) – the hire car to the airport was late, the Friday night traffic was horrible, and our flight was “indefinitely delayed.” Yikes! By the time we arrived in the city it was 11:00 p.m., but our moods brightened with a cheerful greeting from the wide-awake staff at the Marriott, who informed us that the midnight buffet would soon be starting! The hotel was gorgeous and our room was very luxurious – much nicer than at any chain hotel we’ve visited at in the U.S.

On Saturday, after a big breakfast and a swim in the pool, it was time for some serious sight-seeing. Hyderabad was founded in the late 16th century by Mohammed Quli Shah and, unlike most of South India, was under Muslim rule until the early 20th century. In its heyday, Hyderabad was renowned for its palaces, mosques and ornamental gardens, especially since it became the lone outpost of courtly Muslim culture in India after the Mughal Empire collapsed. Now it is a bustling city (the sixth largest in India) and the major hi-tech hub for the South (hence the nickname “Cyberabad”). Our first stop was the royal burial grounds where seven of the Qutb Shahi rulers were buried in large, ornamental tombs. Originally, the area had gardens with water-channels and pools, but now it has become overgrown and the water has dried up. However, the tombs themselves were quite striking – each one was topped with a large “onion” dome with small minarets (towers) around it. Inside the tombs, it was cool and dark, with high, arched ceilings, little niches, and narrow passageways (which James explored, of course). The acoustics were great – we heard one man chanting to Allah and the sound reverberated as though he was speaking through a microphone. It was very peaceful place, with no large groups of tourists, and only one snack-vendor. (I am certain we made his day when we loaded up with soda, chips and ice cream!).

From the tombs, we went on to Golconda, a massive fort which served as the citadel of the aforementioned Qutb Shahi dynasty. Originally built in the 12th century as a mud fort, it was transformed in the early 16th century into a fortified city of palaces, mosques and gardens. The ruins are so large that they cover an area of 15 square miles! As we drove towards the Golconda, we could see the massive stone walls – most of which appear to be holding up quite well. Visiting the fort involved a long climb up to the top, where the ruler had his throne room with a rooftop pavilion. It was worth the climb, as the views of Hyderabad were amazing, even though the city has a layer of smog reminiscent of Los Angeles on a bad day! There were a great many sights along the way, including a creepy jail, mosques, arched brick hallways, and a small Hindu temple, built into a cave. We even saw a film crew shooting a movie that involved four pretty young girls in very stylish salwar khameez outfits, a guy dressed like a maharajah waiting in the wings, and a tense director yelling out instructions in a mixture of Hindi and English!

On Sunday, we ventured into the heart of the Old City, to see Hyderabad’s landmark, Charminar (“four towers”), which was built in the 16th century. At the top, we had a marvelous view of the city in all four directions. From Charminar, we walked to the nearby Mecca Masjid, a huge mosque, built in the same time period, whose vast courtyard can hold as many as 10,000 worshippers! Then it was time for some serious shopping in the Laad Bazaar, known for its pearls, bangles and perfume. I got to try out my bargaining skills, as we bought a huge batch of bangles for Taz and her friends at home. We could have easily stayed in Hyderabad longer, but we left on Sunday afternoon to catch a flight back to Chennai. The kids had a wonderful time, and got along really well with the Hellman twins (Niko and Kaya, age 10). It was great for them to share their experiences with other American kids who know exactly what they are going through. We look forward to seeing them again, as well as all the other Fulbright exchange teachers, when we meet up for the November conference in Pondicherry.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Diwali – Festival of Lights (festival of “crackers”!)

It is Monday morning and Diwali (or Deepavali) has come and gone. Our quiet street is littered with debris and wrappers from hundreds of firecrackers set off this weekend. Everyone is moving a little more slowly, as the city resumes its normal routine after the big holiday.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, we felt very fortunate to be in India for the nine-day Navaratri festival in September. Diwali, known as the “festival of lights,” is an even bigger Hindu festival, and the build-up for it was huge. Diwali commemorates the homecoming of King Rama after a 14-year exile in the forest and his victory over the demon-king Ravana. According to legend, the people of Ayodhya (the capital of Rama’s kingdom) welcomed their king home by lighting rows (avali) of lamps (dipa), thus the name Dipavali. Traditionally, people light diyas—small clay pots filled with oil—to signify victory of good over the evil. Although Diwali is only a one-day holiday (held on October 18 this year), the festivities last throughout the week. It is worth mentioning that President Obama observed Diwali this year by lighting a ceremonial lamp at the White House -- a gesture that had a big impact here, and even made the front page of The Hindu newspaper. People in this part of India celebrate Diwali by visiting family, wearing new clothes, giving gifts, eating lots of sweets, and setting off fireworks (“crackers”). And just like in the United States, there are constant newspaper and TV ads encouraging people to shop – for sweets, for clothes, and even for electronics!

Earlier in the week, Mike purchased firecrackers for us, and on Thursday evening (Oct. 15), we went out into our street to join in the fun. Some of the crackers, such as the sparklers and spinning chakara wheels, are fairly safe, but others explode with such ear-splitting noises and terrifying showers of sparks that I know they must be illegal back in the U.S.!! As our kids shared their sparklers, they watched some of the scarier looking firecrackers being set off – one of them was so powerful that the sparks shot up four stories past the roof of our building!! In addition to the smaller fireworks, there are huge ones (like the kind we have in Cedarburg for July 4th) being set off all over the city.

On Friday night, we were invited over to a party at my yoga teacher’s house to watch the fireworks from her roof. It was fun, although we knew it was time to leave when some of the louder crackers went off and my ears began ringing! Even on our quiet street, the firecrackers started up again at six a.m. on Saturday morning, exploding like gunshots and continuing non-stop. It was then that I was truly glad we had decided to spent part of the weekend away, at a resort in Mahabalipuram, about an hour south of Chennai.

Thus far, we have stayed at some wonderful hotels in our Indian travels, but nothing could compare to this place – the GRT Temple Bay Resort. Granted, it was a little above our usual budget, but we felt Diwali was a good excuse to splurge. It was well worth the money for the amazing pools, the clean stretch of beach, and the gorgeous facilities. Given the price, I thought perhaps we would only see Western tourists, but right away we ran into some of James’ classmates from Vidya Mandir, who were on vacation with their families! There are times when I miss the cool fall weather of Cedarburg, but as I lay on my back, floating in a swimming pool overlooking the Bay of Bengal, I felt very fortunate to be in such a tropical location.

On Sunday morning, we went out to explore more of the rock temples around the area. We had already visited some of them in September (written about in a previous blog), but we had missed a few places. Our favorite spot was the Five Rathas, a series of 7th century rock-cut temples and animals (a lion, a bull and an elephant) that are amazingly well preserved. We also visited Crocodile Park, a truly creepy place, somewhat like a small zoo, where we could see dozens of crocodiles piled up on one another. At first, they appeared so still that the kids remarked scornfully, “How lame – they’re fake,” until one of them suddenly awoke and opened his huge mouth full of teeth. Note to self – never underestimate a crocodile! All too soon, it was time to head back to Chennai, but we have already decided that we will be visit the Temple Bay Resort at least one more time before our stay in India is up!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Kerala, Part 2

To continue from our last blog, we greatly enjoyed our stay above the clouds at the hill station of Munnar. The chilly air was a welcome relief from Chennai’s heat, although we found ourselves longing for fleece jackets, which is a first for us in India! As we were packing up to leave Munnar on Wednesday evening (Sept. 30), we turned on the TV, hoping to find an English language show for the kids. Instead, we found ourselves riveted to a local news station, which was showing footage of a boat accident at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady. We learned that a tourist boat, carrying 80 passengers on a wildlife-viewing cruise around Periyar Lake, had capsized, killing 41 people. It is not unusual to read about road and rail accidents in the local papers, but I often pass over them without much thought. This incident hit home for all of us, since we were scheduled to pass through Thekkday on the next day of our Kerala vacation.

When we arrived in Thekkady on Thursday afternoon, the mood was very subdued, with all the stores closed, many of them displaying black mourning flags. Our driver told us that all activities in town were cancelled, due to the tragedy on Periyar Lake. So we left early Friday morning, after a brief stop at one of the nearby spice stores. In addition to its tea plantations, this hilly area of Kerala is known for its spice gardens, where cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla pods, and black pepper are grown. I bought a few spices, though I was most excited about purchasing some locally grown coffee, to replace the Nescafe in my Chennai apartment!

Our next stop was Kumarakom, where we were scheduled to take a houseboat trip along the backwaters. The three-person boat crew greeted us warmly with jasmine flower garlands and fresh coconuts (the coconut milk had a surprising taste – more salty than sweet). The next few hours were spent in complete luxury, as our boat made its way through the backwaters, passing huge groves of coconut palms, other houseboats, men fishing from small docks with nets, and flocks of white birds skimming over the water. After a delicious lunch of fish curry (a specialty in Kerala), we passed the time playing cards and “Indian rules” Scrabble (Tamil and English words allowed), and snacking on coffee, fresh pineapple, and fried bananas. When our boat docked in the evening, we were served freshly-caught prawns for dinner and one of the crew found a nearby cable among the palm trees to attach to the boat’s flat screen TV, so the kids could watch a movie. Although we were warned the mosquitoes could be vicious, we barely noticed them, especially since our bedrooms had AC. In fact, we’ve had worse luck with mosquitoes on camping trips in Wisconsin!
In the morning, when the boat resumed its travels, we saw vignettes of local life: women washing clothes, dishes, and children (!) in the river, ferry boats taking men to work, and children walking to school. As we drew nearer to the town of Alleppey, we saw more and more houseboats – it was a traffic jam on the river, though without all the constant horns!

We docked at mid-morning, and were taken to our final destination – the Maria Heritage homestay in Alleppey. Homestays are quite popular in this area of Kerala, and they consist of historic homes, decorated with traditional furnishings, and feature home-cooked Keralan meals. Our suite was truly luxurious, featuring a balcony with a hand-carved wooden swing, overlooking the palm tree groves and rice paddy fields. We lazed away most of the afternoon, though James got to try his hand fishing in a tank of water channeled from the river and he caught eight fish! As with the houseboat, we dined on Kerala specialties, including more fish. In the evening, we could hear a sort of “jungle white noise” of insects and birds outside our windows, and we even saw a few large bats! The only downside to our stay was our 4:00 a.m. wakeup call the next morning, as we had to be in Kochin at 6:30 a.m. for an early flight back to Chennai!

It was hard to come back to all the traffic, noise and heat of Chennai (still a reliable 90 plus degrees!), so we have already decided to plan our next getaway as soon as possible!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kerala, Part I – October 1

Vacation at last! After five weeks of school, it was time for a week off, so we planned to leave the bustle of Chennai behind for a trip to Kerala, a state on the southwest coast of India, known as “God’s own country,” due to its natural beauty. We left our apartment on Sunday the 27th, the second to last day of the nine-day Navaratri festivities. As we drove to the train station, we saw evidence of the festive season in the rows of auto-rickshaws lined up along the side of the street, decorated with flower garlands and palm branches. Even the luggage carts in the train station had palm branches tied to them!

For the first leg of our journey to Kerala, we took the night train to Cochin – a twelve-hour trip. We opted to go via Second Class 2-Tier AC, a fairly comfortable way to travel (though not as posh as First Class). In 2-Tier, each compartment has two upper and two lower bunks, enclosed by a set of curtains. The bunks were actually quite comfortable, and we were given clean sheets, blankets, and pillows by a train attendant. By 10 p.m., the carriage was dark, as everyone around us attempted to sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train. At times the train would stop briefly and I wondered who might be getting off or on in the middle of the night. We awoke the following morning to see the lush landscape of Kerala – huge groves of coconut trees, rice paddies, so much greenery.

We got off the train in Cochin, a popular tourist spot on the coast, known for its historic district, Fort Cochin, which is full of Dutch and Portugese colonial buildings. Our hotel, the Poovah, was one such building – a beautiful Dutch colonial mansion with gorgeous hardwood floors and amazing views of the Arabian Sea. I am not exaggerating when I say that the hotel was one of the nicest places I have ever stayed – in India or anywhere else! The seawalk just outside the hotel was full of people out strolling, as well as the usual ice cream vendors and trinket sellers. The waves here were not as powerful as the Bay of Bengal, although the huge clumps of scary-looking seaweed deterred us from putting our feet in the water. At one end of the seawalk were huge wooden fishing nets, operated by a system of weights, that originated in the 14th century, brought to India from China. After six weeks in Chennai, we found it a nice change to be in a smaller, more tourist-oriented city. I think we saw more Westerners in Cochin during our one night there than we have seen during our entire stay in Chennai!

As hard as it was to leave the comfort of the Hotel Poovah (especially after breakfast on the terrace with the Arabian Sea in the background!), we were en route the next morning to the hill station of Munnar. At a height of 5,920 feet, Munnar is part of the High Ranges, a very lush, cool area, known for its tea plantations. The contrast between this area and the tropical environs of Cochin was quite striking. The higher we climbed, the cooler the air became. It is hard to describe the beauty of the area, with its waterfalls, green hills and rock cliffs – it simply felt like another world, so different from the India we had seen so far. At one point, when we stopped at a waterfall to take pictures and buy snacks, we saw a group of monkeys, sneaking down the side of the hill to forage among the discarded pineapple leaves and coconut shells. Taz was entranced with the adorably cute monkeys, especially the babies.

Our hotel in Munnar, the Deshadan, billed itself as the “highest resort in Kerala” and we did feel like we were above the clouds, with views of green hills that stretched for miles. The morning after we arrived, we visited a tea museum, where batches of tea leaves were dried and then ground in varying degrees of fineness, to make various types of tea. Even in this world of mechanization, the tea leaves are still picked by hand by the workers. From there, we went on to an “elephant park,” where we could finally indulge in an activity from our Indian wish list – an elephant back ride. As we waited for our turn, we watched one of the drivers give an elephant a bath with huge buckets of water, concluding with a soaping-down of the tusks. The elephant ride was not all that comfortable, since each time the elephant went uphill or down, we swayed precariously, holding on for dear life, trying not to fall off. At the end, we bought big pieces of cut-up pineapple (leaves and all) to feed our elephant. It was fun, although I don’t think any of us are cut our for a serious jungle trek! Our day concluded with a ride around Maupetty Lake in a speedboat. I think James enjoyed it the most, even though he didn't actually get to "drive" the boat.

So far, we have enjoyed our trip to Kerala. We still have more to see, but that will be covered in the next blog! Stay tuned . .