We arrived at Koshi India airport on December4/09 to begin a 14 days group based tour holiday with a Canadian company called GAP Adventure. Including the staff, 17 of us began a scheduled adventure around South India in a 20 passengers bus. We were a bit concerned how we would enjoy the group tour and the scheduled departures because we had been traveling on our own terms for 4 months. At first look at the itinerary, the schedule was very demanding and the number of places we were to visit in two weeks seemed overwhelming. Some days were very long, as we were to visit as many as 4 different sites in one day. We would have to leave early morning, and then arrive at our next accommodations in the early evening. At times the tour was too long and too regimented, but we soon realized it was the best way to see India, as the driving was horrifying. I was soon glad that I decided not to drive there. For example, it was not unusual on the highway to see four vehicles passing each other at the same time on a two-lane road. It’s common for drivers to pass if they determine that there is enough space for all vehicles to squeeze by during the pass. Our driver would then swing out into on coming traffic and force the on coming driver to head for the shoulder to avoid an accident The first couple of passes really freaked us out, but we learned to cope with it by simply not watching! It is hard not to look because all the drivers involved honk their horn repeatedly until the dangerous pass is over. They love their car horns in India and they use them all the time to communicate different messages. For example, when we were walking down the streets, drivers would constantly short double honk their horn at us, so we would look at them and in turn they could see our rare and odd white faces. We were kinda like a freak show for them. It took a while for us to figure out what they were honking, and then we realized and it became very annoying. Just like Africa, Drew attracted the most attention because of his blond hair, fair complexion and the fact that he was a child.
Anyway, we were introduced to our group and we all ventured out on our first activity together. We took an evening stroll from our hotel down to the nearby ocean to see the ancient Chinese fishing nets. Chinese fishing nets are a land based netting system that is known to be thousands of years old and still being used by many Asian countries today. Big fishing nets are attached to a large framed structure and the nets are manually lowered and raised in and out of the water by a simple boom system. The boom operators hoist the nets out of the water and the fish fetchers run up the tilted structure to retrieve their catch, then the nets are lowered again for the next catch. The sunset sky was an amazing reddish color and the archaic Chinese nets made for a fantastic photo. This first little group adventure made us aware that again the street vendors and baggers were going to be a problem. Every time these people see white tourist they flock to them and start harassing, and most times, they don’t give up easily. One vendor, I asked casually, how much his memory cards for cameras were, and he followed me for hours to three different site-seeing locations. He obviously knew our tour bus schedule because he was already at our next stop waiting for me! I couldn’t believe it! I told him a hundred times that I was only curious about the memory card prices and I didn’t need one! I was starting to think that in India… no means yes! Lyane really struggled with the vendors. She constantly engaged in conversation with them and she attempted to explain why she did not want to buy from them. This proved to be futile as the vendors interpreted her communication as an increased potential to make a sale! The more she explained her position, the more hopeful the vendor became. We soon discovered that the only way to get by them was to simply not to acknowledge them, so we developed a method of just walking and looking straight ahead and repeating the words no, no, no. They still tried to sell and beg, but they gave up much sooner. Rude, but effective! Surprisingly, the kids did really well coping with the street people. Drew did so well, we appointed him chief negotiator whenever we wanted to buy something. He had no problem initiating a price negotiation with a vendor at an insultingly low price. Low even by Indian standards! Jessica loved the street jewelry and quickly learned the haggling skills as well. One street vendor we hired and really enjoyed was a snake charmer performer who fluted four cobras out of their baskets. It was shocking and kinda funny to see the snakes lunge at him and occasionally successfully biting him. The venom from the snakes had obviously been removed, but it still looked like the bite hurt. We videotaped his performance and the kids watched it several times and laugh every time he got bit! Morbid little buggers.
The Indian currency was difficult to adjust to because you got 45 Rupees for one Canadian dollar. It seemed relatively worthless to us, but every rupee counted to the Indian people. For example, to hire a tuk tuk (a small three wheel taxi) the average costs would be 50 rupees or one dollar. Cheap! However, it is expected in India that you negotiate the price, so sometimes we would be haggling over 12 cents Canadian! Like it or not, you have to bargain or you could pay as high as 80% more for a product or service. At times it was a bit maddening if we were in a hurry because their culture demands a lengthy barter first! Strangely, the barter system does not exist everywhere in India, because a few of the states are communist governed and there all prices are fixed, and there were no street vendors. That was weird. India is a hard country to understand.
Back on the bus, we continued to travel through South India. It was pleasantly beautiful and very tropical with lush green mountains that were covered with palm trees. The roads were fairly narrow and winding and the driving seemed pretty speedy. We then arrived in a nice little town (Fort Kochin) we were to stay in for a couple of days and there we hired a tuk tuk for 100 rupees to tour the sites. This nice local driver took us to the towns spice factory, then to a ginger factory and to an Indian antique store as well. The spice factory was amazing, as it was a huge complex with thousands of different spices. There we learned the history of the Indian spice trade, and the many uses of spices, such as medical and cooking. Next visited a big ginger factory. We watched the interesting process from end to end, but we were most fascinated with the sorting method. We entered an old covered silo type building where three very old women were sitting on top of huge piles of ginger root, each sorting the roots into different piles of quality. It was very hot and dusty in there and you could tell the old women were very poor. Our guide told us that they probably got paid about 40 rupees a day or an equivalent of under a dollar a day Canadian. That evening, we attended a traditional Kerala Indian dance performance with our group. It was pretty good and the face paintings and costumes were amazing. It was called a face dance, or something like that, and the performers performed a play predominately using their facial expressions and the odd physical movement. It was a bit boring to watch their facial expressions for hours, but nonetheless, another ancient Indian tradition that was part of their history and somewhat interesting.
The next day it was back on the bus to travel higher into the mountains to visit the tea plantations. This was probably the highlight of the trip, as the tea plants on the mountainside were very picturess. It was early morning when we arrived and the weather was perfect and the workers were already working in the tea fields. It was so tranquil and beautiful it felt like we had arrived in paradise. As we walked along the paths of the fields, the local workers would stop for a moment, smile and give us friendly hello. One guy took a liking to the kids and he took the four of us into the heart of the field to let us try cutting the tealeaves using the manual tea cutters. That was very cool. Although it seemed to be a nice job to have, most the workers were women who obviously worked very hard. They would cut the tealeaves with their sheers and empty them into a large gunnysack. Once sack was full, they would tie it and hoist the large awkward sack on their head and shoulder, and carry it to a main building located some distance away. I was easy to feel a bit of sorrow for them, but they seemed quit content and they all smiled as they worked. Next, we drove to a tea factory to see what happens to the tealeaves that were just cut. It was again very interesting and we watched the process tea making process from end to end. One of the last functions to produce tea was a giant wood furnace that they use to dry the tealeaves. The furnace is stoked with wood 24 hours a day to keep the intense heat up. This process was well organized and huge piles of cut wood were pilled in front of the furnace ready to be fed by five or so workers. It was truly fascinating and a ton of work! All for a bloody cup of tea!
The following day, we took a walking tour and we climbed up a mountainside into a cave. There on the walls of the cave were ancient writings and drawings that dated back over 8,000 years. The cave was well covered and naturally lit and therefore the ancient writing and art were visible and in perfect condition. The ancient figures on the walls are pre-Hinduism and are the people of the times religious worship to their five natural gods Earth, Water, Wind, Fire and Space. Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest modern practiced religions today, but it is only 6,000 years old. These hieroglyphics pre-dated Hinduism evolution by 2000 years! Eery!!
Then it was back on the bus to visit another temple or church. If you love old temples and churches… this is the trip for you! We must have visited twenty of them. The architecture and history of these historic buildings is incredible but virtually impossible to describe. For example, the ancient temple (Channakeshava Temple in Somanathapur) had over 100,000 individually carved figures that took 500 men 54 years to complete. Now that’s dedication and perseverance! Visiting all those Hindu temples did help us understand the religion a little better, but it is a complex religion to comprehend in two weeks. They worship many different gods, perform many unique rituals and like all religions, they have commandments to abide by.
One tradition that we did not know about India was the fact that the majority of marriages are still arranged. There is a religious mixture of Hindus and Christian, but both still practice the arranged marriages. The marriages have strict guidelines such as a person can person can only marry another within their own social class, called casts. There are several levels of casts that range from extremely wealthy to very poor. Once you are eligible for marriage, your horoscope is used to match you up with your future mate. Parents of each candidate sit down and review the potential couples horoscopes, their profiles such as, age, occupation and education, and then decide whether it is a match and whether they should proceed with marriage plans or not. I kinda chuckled under my breath when our guide told me and he asked me what was so funny. I explained that I thought it was a little outdated and confining. I could tell our usually calm cool and collected guide was annoyed with me and he sharply responded back, “What is your divorce rate in North America?” He caught me off guard with his aggressive sharp reply and so I, simply responded “good point!” I think he was a little touchy on the subject because he himself had recently been happily married to a women he only knew three months before they got married. Can you imagine? As our friendly debate continued, he did explain that if you absolutely unhappy and you need to leave the marriage you can, but your options are quite limited. One, you can run away and never return disgracing your family and yourself. Or two, you can commit suicide. Family is so important and entrenched in their culture that it even influences their governmental laws. For example, if you ran away from your marriage and family and you wanted to apply for post secondary education, your application will be rejected because of your estranged status. Bizarre but effective!
When we visited the Bridhadeshwara Temple, we witnessed a Hindu ritual that few tourist see. They were worshiping this big black egg shaped granite rock and were pouring gallons of coconut milk over it as an offering to the gods. Didn’t seem like a big deal to us, but when they saw we were watching, they hastily shut a large curtain so we couldn’t see anymore. In the Hindu temples there is always a lot of activities going on and many rituals and praying are constantly going on. For example, one of the gods they pray to is Ganesh (the elephant headed god for luck). The worshipers come and stand in front of the statue’s pedestal and begin praying ritual. First, they begin by crossing their arms over their shoulders and then reach for their ears, and then they pull on them several times, and finally completing the praying with a good couple of firm knocks on their head with a closed fist, all while bending and kneeling at the same time. We watched a few people do it and we found it difficult not to laugh, but out of respect, we did not. Another ritual the kids were shocked about was the fact that the dot or mark on Hindu people’s foreheads is made of cow pooh. They also learned and were disgusted that sacred cow pooh is used to wash the floor of Hindu homes every Friday. Yes, every Thursday a fresh cow patty is displayed outside the front door of their houses, ready for Friday application. Other unusual Hindu rituals include, washing your face with cow piss to wards off jealousy. Hindus who build or purchase a new house must have a sacred cow enter their new home and wait for it to urinate to bless the house. I know all religions have their unique rituals and traditions, but Hinduism have some tough ones to swallow. Literally! Our favorite ritual was the sacred Elephants that were at temples. There the elephants were trained to take money from your hand with their trunk, then drop the money in a pot, then proceed to bless you with their trunk by laying it on your head. It was a win win situation because the temple made a little money and the kids got to touch an elephant.
Then came the dreaded day when our bus dropped us off at the Indian train station for a scheduled overnight trip across South India. Train riding is very traditional mode of transportation in India and apparently an important part of experiencing the culture. Well it was an experience all right. Cramped in our tiny berths, I think Lyane and I slept about two hours all night. The train constantly stopped at stations throughout the night causing our bodies to roll almost off the bed. Then once we got going again, the train swayed us back and forth like a washing machine and then the whole thing started all over again. The kids were excited to be on their first overnight train ride and when they finally fell asleep, they slept like babies.
No trip to South India is complete without a visit to The Gandhi Museum. And, there is no better way to get there than by arriving in style on a tradition Indian rickshaw. Our rickshaw driver was a very nice man and he even let Drew peddle the two-passenger rickshaw around the museum grounds. Most of the museum was filled with information boards of Indian/British history documents and Gandhi’s readings. It was interesting, but there was a lot of reading and not enough museum articles. There were a few interesting artifacts though, such as Gandhi’s last pair of little round glasses as well as his garment he was wearing on the day of his assassination.
The last few days of our tour, we stayed at a traditional Indian homestead, on South India’s backwater. For hundreds of years, large grass roof boats were built and used in the backwaters to transporting goods. Today, these large boats have been transformed into houseboats and they are very popular with local tourism. They are pretty cool and are fully equipped with, bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, barbeque, and come complete with a captain/cook. There is so many of these boats that at mid afternoon, we could see hundreds of boats passing on the river of our river front residence. During our homestead stay, we also took a walking tour with a guide and we learned about the history of the area and we were staying on and discovered that the land was man made by local Indian settlers. It was pretty impressive as it was approximately10km square and was designed especially for growing rice. Back at the homestead, we were fed locals Indian food for all our meals and we tried our best to eat it. It was tough on us though, as all the meals were a little spicy and mostly foreign to us. I’ll tell ya, I have never been so happy to see and eat a bowl of corn flakes after that adventure! On of the coolest experiences we had at the homestead was taking a traditional paddled boat ride down the backwaters at night accompanied by local people, who sang traditional Indian songs while they slowly paddled down the river. It was very soothing and surreal listening to their traditional Indian songs as we floated down the calm moon lit backwaters.
In conclusion, India was a great experience, but very difficult to put into words because it was such a cultural experience versus a site seeing adventure. And, we saw and did so many things in two weeks it is impossible to write about them all. In general, some of the things we will always remember about India is that the shopping was cheap, fun and always an adventure. We also will remember all the entertaining wild monkeys that seemed to be everywhere we traveled. We will also never forget how we felt to be a minority in India. It was almost like being a celebrity as we rarely saw other white people. Now that I think about it, we never saw any other white children the entire trip! It was not unusual for locals to stop and stare at us. Some people even asked us if they could take a picture of us with themselves and their family. Once again, blondie Drew got the most requests for pictures. There were times when our popularity got a little scary and we really had to watch out for the kids. We also will never forget the spicy curry based Indian food and the struggles we had adapting. Our transportation experience was very cool, as we traveled by bus, train, tuktuk, rickshaw, bicycle, taxi, car, motorboat, canoe, and even by raft! We toured enough amazing churches and temples to last a lifetime. We really enjoyed our group tour and the people we traveled with. It enhanced the experience and spawned many new friendships. Having said that, we would like to express a special hello and thank you to our tour group friends, Ishbel from Scotland, Chris and John from England, Sara from England, Chris from Wisconsin, Steve and Ruth from North Carolina, Fred and Sheila from New York, Emma from Montreal, Canada and our guide Ravi and our bus driver and assistant.
And finally and most importantly, we will always remember the Indian for it’s special people. They are a wonderful people who are very kind, calm, humble and friendly. We never had a negative experience with any body during our adventure. There is much to be learned from the Indian people.
Good bye to India and now off to Ozzy land.