Wednesday, January 19, 2011

South Part 3

I'm just gonna keep on rolling and posting. It's not an especially busy time, so I want to get caught up fast.
Place number 3 was Thekkady. Thekkady is about 100 kilometers away from Munnar, but it takes nearly 5 hours to get there. It's still up in the hills, but in terms of elevation it's quite a bit lower than Munnar. It's dry and hot, but not too hot, and you can see mountains in the distance. Surrounding the tourist-oriented town are lush jungles and traditional villages.

Thekkady was not my favorite place (that honor is given to Munnar and Goa), but the things that we did there were definitely the best. We left Munnar quite early and made it to Thekkady by the early afternoon. Thekkady is famous for its spices. So we went to an elephant-riding zone/spice garden in the late afternoon. We walked around the garden (which isn't really a garden, it's just basically spices growing in the forest). After that, we all took turns riding on elephants.
Elephants are just awesome. These are the Asian elephants, of course, which are known to be not as large as their African counterparts, but they are still very big (bigger than they look in the picture) and intimidating, what with their thick hides and flailing trunks. These guys were very well-trained though. I felt a little bad for them. It seemed like they could be leading much more interesting lives. Still, I enjoyed it. The best part, however, was when we all were led to the elephant's bathing pit and were each given an elephant bath. It was an experience. It also provided me with perhaps my favorite profile picture of all time.
That evening, we dried ourselves off as best we could and attended a Kathakali show at the same place. This facility seemed to be a combination of a wide variety of entertainment. Kathakali, which we sort of learned about in AP Lit while reading The God of Small Things (another excellent India book to read), is a very ancient, traditional song and dance style of storytelling. In our particular show, there were two male actors that were ridiculously made up, one to look like a woman. There was a man singing what was presumably the story in maybe Malayalam (Kerala's widely spoken native tongue) or Sanskrit (the Indian equivalent of Latin). In our tale, a studly warrior-king caught the eye of some sort of demon, who disguised himself as a seductive woman and failed to attract the attentions of the king. The demon then revealed himself to be Blackbeard and had a dance fight with the king before having his ear sliced off.
Kathakali is an experience.
The next morning we got up early and went on a jungle hike through a tiger preserve. Nobody saw any tigers. But the guide said that in four years of taking folks on jungle treks, he had seen tigers four times. I suppose it was too much to expect that we would provide his annual sighting. It was still a lot of fun. This is the kind of thing I like, walking through some beautiful outdoors, looking for wildlife, trying to be quiet enough to photograph deer and birds and monkeys and things.
That afternoon, we went to an Ayurvedic massage session and we were given a long, very traditional massage and steam bath. It was exceedingly pleasant. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Thekkady, which is a nice place to do this because it has a lot of tourist oriented shops. Also, it had a coffee shop. With filter coffee. This was a terrific discovery. The coffee that you can find in India is really overly sugared. Not my style. But this place was cozy in a Blue Monday kind of way, and you just don't find these kind of places in India. Made my day.
That night we went to fighting show in a kind of battle pit, surround on balconies above by excited tourists. It was kind of like a wrestling arena. 7 highly trained athletes had these very fast, incredibly choreographed battles with all sorts of exciting and dangerous weapons. They also jumped through rings of fire. It was really cool.
So that's Thekkady. Post 4 coming up soon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

South India Part 2

As time-consuming and rather wearisome a task as it has become to update my blog regularly (as you may have noticed), I am determined not to let it die off, because I like it and I like writing. So I am going to prune my tour details as much as is reasonable and plow through it. Hopefully by the end of next week I will be all caught up. The essential problem has been that there can be very long stretches of inactivity, where there's very little that is new enough to be blog-worthy, but there can be even longer stretches, like in the past two months, where is simply so much to write about that I am completely overwhelmed and backlogged. Now, for example, I have to cover, in addition to the rest of the trip, a thrilling new festival and our bombastic District Conference performance. And the North tour is rapidly approaching.

On a non-tour-related note, I would like to recommend a book to anybody who may have an interest in learning about modern India but wouldn't like a textbook , or, sometimes even worse, a textbook masquerading as a novel. The book is The White Tiger by one Aravind Adiga, a Mumbai native who was educated in the United States and London. It is a very sharp satire that tracks the ruthless rise to power of a very poor, low-caste villager. It is an outstanding book. It will not take you long to read. The pages practically flip themselves and it's a pretty short novel anyways. It resonated very clearly with me - it is, perhaps, the first piece of literature about India that tells the story of India as I have seen it. There were so many little pieces and details that I can see clearly out of my daily life. India is a deeply misunderstood society, and it is misunderstood in a lot of different ways ways. If you happen to be interested in a very entertaining and brief crash course in the real India, this book is the best thing I can recommend.

Thank you for indulging my sales pitch of the day. Now to more tour.

When we last left me and my fellow travelers, we had just proceeded on a drive up into Munnar. Munnar is not a large city, but rather a series of communities built around a flourishing tea industry high up in the mountains. Now these are spectacular mountains, but they aren't exactly the Alps or the Himalayas. Look at the picture. That's them.

Beautiful, eh? Admittedly, it isn't the untamed, rocky, snowy beauty of some of the aforementioned mountain chains, but they are still gorgeous. If you look at the ground immediately in front of them, you can see neatly arranged clumps of some sort of crop. The said crop is tea. Munnar is full of tea plantations, and a large part of the mountainside is occupied with these crops. Normally I would not approve of farming and industry spoiling natural beauty, but as you can see, this doesn't spoil it at all. Munnar is gorgeous.

In Munnar, we toured a tea factory and saw a video on the history of the region. This is a place where somehow the humans and the mountains have interacted very well, and the mountain ecosystems have remained safe and beautiful. There are parts of India that are very polluted (most populated areas), but it also should be noted that the government has set aside a ridiculous amount of land for preservation. Then we explored a pleasant town in the hills and we found BEEF. Turns out the cow-slaying taboos don't apply to bulls. This is certainly still frowned upon in a lot of places, but clearly it was ok here. I cannot express to you how thrilling this was. Then we visited a dam and a beautiful, crystal clear mountain lake. We walked around there for a while, visited a roadside market, and took a boat ride. I cannot express to you how nice Munnar felt to me. It was just so cool, so fertile, so beautiful, so natural. This was one of my favorite sites on the trip.

I think I'll stop there for today, but like I said, I'm going to try and plow through this trip pretty fast in the next week or so. I'll probably make a lot of posts, and then make it like two parts trip, one part something else. Just bear with me.

Look how much fun we're having and how proud we are that one of us is from Brazil.