Monday, January 28, 2008

Men at Work

Geordie commented yesterday on my ability tosay so much about so little. When there's not much to do, one still has to share. Today we went for a nice long and very hot walk along the red brick path heading north and discovered that it was a very busy day for the fishermen. We have been up the path before but this is the first time I have seen so many men working at their nets and their boats here. There were lots in Kovalam, and there are certainly many many boats out fishing at night here - it's like watching a little city on the waves from our restaurant viewpoint.

The men here work in cooperatives. I don't think I've mentioned that this is the first democratically elected Commnuist government in India (maybe in the world).On the way through the state one sees the red flags along the side of the road displaying the hammer and sickle.

It's amazing to see the men all working together to organize their nets. They seem to have miles of them laid out on the sand and they have been spending hours organizing them in the hot sun. I took a few pictures of them toiling - how they cope with such hard work in such hot weather is beyond me. I guess they are acclimatized and I'm not.

The computer is not cooperating with me right now. I'm having a hard time getting the images to load. I do want to add a couple of pictures though. One is a view of our small beach from Restaurant row, and the other is a picture I took of Geordie last night while he was watching the sunset.

Wow, that took forever, so I'm quitting while I'm ahead. I'll be back with more soon, I'm sure. Until then...

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Varkala Daze

I've added a counter to my blog (which took far too long) and when I checked discovered there had been 14 hits since yesterday afternoon. I think that means time for a new entry. It's been long enough, although we are of course doing little exciting except lazing around on a hammock and enjoying the sound and sight of the sea from our "sit-out" here in Varkala.

We arrived in Varkala from Kovalam after only an hour and a half taxi ride which included going through the capital city of Kerala, called Thiruvanthapuram (more simply called Trivandrum which is easier to roll off the tongue. Along the way I realized that Kovalam does not have a monopoly on coconut palms. The entire state seems to be covered with them - it's a marvellous sight.

The driver found our hotel easily - it's at the far end of the village area and a ways from the main strip. The main part of the tourist scene is along a cliff, with a red brick path about four feet wide passing in front of all the establishments, restaurants, hotels, shops, chemists. On the other side of the red brick path is a sheer drop to the sea. I'm not a good judge of height, but if we fall off we are goners. When we walk the path we keep to the inside as much as we can - a moment of vertigo and it's over. The little children who play along there should be equipped with parachutes!

Our hotel as I say is away from all that - we have a short walk to reach the pathway and then a bit of a walk up before we reach the more popular restarants

I have been down to the little beach in front of our hotel once, two days ago, and found the waves just a little too rough. The sea bottom is shallow though, so as long as one keeps one's head, and watches the waves, it's not really dangerous. Just stay upright and wait for the big wave to deposit one back down. Maybe I'll go again this afternoon, and maybe I'll even get Geordie to come with me. He can be life guard if he's not swimming.

We went for a long walk along the path away from the village two days ago - it seems to go on for miles. There are other hotels further out than ours, so I'm thankful we are not in one of those. I would not relish the thought of having to stay there and walk into town of an evening for dinner. It would mean eating most of our meals at the hotel, which could get boring in 10 days.

Along the path we were witness to the sight of birds wheeling above us. I have a feeling they are the birds used in crossword puzzles - sea eagles, or ernes, or erns, depending on the needs of the puzzle - is that three letters of four? The males of the species are white-fronted while their top wings are a gorgeous red-brown. The females are dark brown top and bottom, but they are all wonderful fliers who swoop around the palms, the cliffs and down to the sea for dinner then back up again. Mind you, getting a picture of one is a feat. I used my multiple shot feature and ended up deleting about 20 pictures of blank sky. The picture I did get was blind luck.

One of the main differences between Kovalam and Varkala is the age of the tourists. In Kovalam we were surrounded by folk like us, people of a certain age, many of them on package holidays from Britain. Our hotel was in fact a package place and there was even an onsite rep for the visitors who helped them arrange tours and smoothed the way for them. Here in Varkala I'm guessing the average age is more like 27, and the facilities reflect that. The restaurant we ate in our first night is called the Rock N Roll Cafe, (the music on the sound system was in fact most enjoyable - not too loud for the old fogies and not too on the edge - not even standard reggae).

While we were on our walk we found another reflection of the youthful draw in Varkala - we were offered smoke or marijuana four times. And yesterday Geordie went for a walk there by himself while I lazed around and was again offered some relaxing herbs. At least they aren't discriminating against us for age. And no we haven't taken them up on the offer. One young man in front of us at the Rock N Roll did smoke at least three small spliffs while he awaited his meal, and had a beer or two at the same time.

About the food - restaurants on the backpack trail seem to think they must be all things to all peope. The place we ate last night is a case in point. It's called the Clafouti, a French name, although they also offer the Pumpernickel Bakery on the same premises. The menu offers - American, British and Indian Breakfasts, Thai food, Italian pizza and pasta, Hungarian Goulash, Chinese food, Mexican and yes, even Indian food, along with lots of fresh seafood prepared often in Indian flavours. Oh, and for the French, ChatuBriand (sic). And of course no self-respecting restaurant would not offer Banana pancakes, chocolate pancakes, coconut pancakes - they are a mainstay of tourist haunts the world over. We've certainly had them in Thailand, Laos and Viet Nam and I'm guessing they are available in Nepal, Tibet and anywhere else considered the backpacker trail.

I'll leave you here with an image from the setting sun two nights ago. We went down to see the sun set into the Arabian Sea - here the sun sets directly out in the water - this is a very straight coast line and there is no curve of shore or bend of bay to hide the sun as it drops. However the everpresent mist means that the sun doesn't exactly sizzle in the water but disappears in a haze.

We are here for another week, and will no doubt have things to tell you about again in a day or two. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What's for Dinner?

Geordie and I have only one night left here in Kovalam and last night went out to dinner at Fusion, probably the best restaurant on the beach. We dressed up in our finery and had a lovely evening within sound and the sight of the Arabian Sea. Of course we wore our new shirts both made by the same tailor in a back alley of the town. My shirt is orange silk with a blue tree shape woven in, while Geordie's is white cotton with a band of gold. And just for you, here we are.

We began dinner by having a pretty expensive drink, but it was necessary because it was called a Bees Knees, which is the name of our daughter Holli's online children's knitting patterns website. Two pictures here, the second one shows the detail on Geordie's shirt - such finery.

Dinner was from the very extensive and creative menu - Fusion offers three different menu options, East, West and Fusion. After the Bees Knees Geordie ordered Asian Calamari from the Fusion menu, which came with lovely crusty calamari whose batter had a nice spicy kick, served along with nice crunchy stir-fried vegetables and basmati rice. I got to taste one of the calamari, which was delicious. The small bowl on his plate is a dip of soy, lime and chili which added nice oomph.

For my own meal, I ordered from the Eastern Menu - a bowl of very tasty chunks of fish in a rich sauce of coconut milk and pureed lentils (which I would have called dal, if I hadn't been told differently) as well as chunks of tomato. It was quite delicious, rich in flavour and certainly spicy too. Thank heaven for the big mound of basmati rice to help cool my mouth.

We decided that since we were already going all out we would have dessert too. From the Fusion menu I decided to have the Stewed Apples with Chili and Cinnamon, topped with Vanilla Ice Cream which was a revelation - hot as hell, cool as heaven. The fruit was chunked and still warm. The dessert was decorated with a whole stewed chili and a sliver of the cinnamon stick. I avoided chewing on either. I'm sure I can recreate this recipe at home; I just have to make sure I'm careful with the chili flavour.

Geordie's dessert was Grilled Pineapple with Vanilla Ice Cream which appeared in what appeared to be a cast-iron bowl, heated under the grill, set on a ring of twisted rope and underlain with a white paper napkin which had been artfully torn to create a rough scalloped edge. The pineapple was lovely, but the ice cream was melting furiously so Geordie had to gobble it up fast. I did get a taste before he finished it though, as he got a taste of mine.

Our table held a flower decoration I thought you might like to see. There must be huge marigold farms in this country because the flowers are everywhere. This lovely bowl contained fresh golden marigolds as did decorations at other tables. On the floor nearby was a large bowl, about two feet across, full of marigold blossoms too with a small butter lamp glowing brightly at its centre.

Tonight we are going to have dinner with a couple we met at our hotel. Marilyn and Trevor are from St. Ives which of course always sets me off with the nursery rhyme, but I've resisted reciting it in their presence. They are well-travelled too, and have whet our appetite to go back to Turkey. They talked glowingly about a place they stay there called Dalian (can't guarantee that spelling) where they rent a cottage set among lemon groves. Doesn't that sound heavenly.

I'll wear my newest just tailored shirt which I picked up yesterday. It's in white with both a gold and a silver stripe in the material, (all through, not just as trim), but I doubt that will show up well in pictures, of which there are none yet anyway. I had the tailor modify it from a short sleeved shirt, asked to have a collar added, and got him to measure for the neck and sleeves. I'll wear it tonight so may get a picture of it then.

I'll leave you here with a couple of images from this morning. I discovered that I have a panoramic feature in my camera so took a photo showing the palm grove but used a close up and also got a couple of people in the shot for the first one. The second is one of our neighbourhood raucous house crows. Hmmm, reminds me of home, although these crows don't really look exactly like the ones we have at home. The crow is a little fuzzy, but you will get some sense of how it looks with its grey neck and its relatively skinny body. They are just as noisy as our crows though and they flock in the evening making lots of noise in their chosen trees.

By the way, some of you may not be aware that you can click on the pictures here and get to see a larger version. Unfortunately the images are much too big for the computer screen. Have fun exploring.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Entertainment and Industry

It's quiet, too quiet! It's been awhile since I wrote, but then again, it's been awhile since we've had any news from home too. (I'm needy!) And I'm afraid everyone is going to be disappointed because we have not been moving around. Yes we have been at the same place now for more than a week - and will in fact have spent 13 days here before moving on. We don't move until next Thursday when we head off for Varkkala (or is that Varkala, around here spellings are changeable).

I told you we were staying in a palm grove so I thought you might like to have an idea of what that might look like. You won't see the hotel, but here are the coconut palms.

And since I mentioned the fishermen out hauling their nets (and boats too), here's a picture of that.

We've gotten a little touristy. Our hotel presents a Kathakali show once a week and we went to see the one that was on last week. The process of watching is interesting. First one gets to watch the artists put on their makeup which took an hour and a half. It' entertaining, but a little slow. Their's a lot of makeup to put on, since they paint their whole face with patterns and in the case of the "main actor" there are paper circles which are applied below the lip, which I think are intended to make the actor look ferocious. The characters are demons who are represented in the mythical lives of the Hindu pantheon of gods.

In this picture you get to see one of the demons preparing. The character is female and at one point in the performance turns himself into a beautiful maiden who tempts the other demon until he gets angry. Then the demon turns back into a woman and demon number two chops off her nose, ears and I think breasts. (The demon had a lovely pair of black breasts which were somewhat like small rockets.) Here's the black faced demon preparing his face and the green faced demon getting close to finishing.

The music accompanying this presentation is percussion - two drums beat there are small finger cymbals and some high pitched singing from one of the musicians. Everyone is male by the way, including the beautiful maiden who wears quite bright pink makeup and a cute little curlicue of painted hair by her ears. Here are all three performers in complete regalia, taking their bows at the end of the performance.

We went to another Kathakali performance last night on the beach. It was presented free on a makeshift stage and was another episode in the long play - did I mention that the whole performance takes 41 days? (I know I didn't, just wanted the shock value!) The performance last night took only 50 minutes, but with only one performer working in mime, it was a long time for us. There was a great funny part though where the character found the baby Krishna (or gave birth, not sure about that). She was breast feeding, in mime of course and couldn't get Krishna off her breast, even though she tried tugging beating, and pushing with both hands. It was the highlight of the performance, honest. Otherwise it's lots of facial expressions, hand movements and a little dancing. Geordie leaned over and said it was a lot like watching paint dry, and I responded that it was more like listening to paint dry, since there is no dialogue. We are such philistines!

And of course one needs to have a look at one of the musicians. Here is the main drummer whose drum appeared to be a big pot with a small mouth, covered in a drum skin and pounded with the flat of his hands.

After the performance we decided to eat at one of the many seafood restaurants on the promenade. After examining all the fish on display outside the restaurant I chose a huge grouper for both of us to share, simply grilled and served with butter rice which includes raisins and cashew nuts. As an aside this is the cashew nut capital of the world I think - certainly the cashew nuts they grow are exported around the world. They are available in all the little shops and we can even get a pound of them, unroasted, at our hotel. Haven't asked the price.

Now for all the vegetarians here, please avert your eyes, since the next picture is our lovely grouper resplendent on its plate surrounded by thin slices of cucumber. The flesh of the fish was very sweet, with a lovely taste and cost a whole 10 dollars for two. With the rice and two bottles of beer (660 ml at 90 rupees each) our meal cost a princely 630 rupees or a whole 15 dollars. (note the beer is in a large tankard with a horse head on it - this is a dry state and even though it's ok to see beer, apparently it's not ok to see it.The bottles are always delivered wrapped in newspaper and usually poured into glasses or mugs where the colour can't be seen.)

Here's a little industry for you. Near our place in the coconut grove we have watched this woman weaving palm fronds which serve as walls around some of the simple huts the people live in. They were also used to hide the performers on the beach last night. Interesting how people develop these different ways of using the natural environment. In Puerto Vallarta palms are used to make the palapas to shade the tourists, but here they use umbrellas for that purpose - it's surprising that the idea didn't develop independently here and that palm frond weaving is not a Mexican pastime.

There's lots of other industry around here. I had a nice tailor sew me up a silk shirt, long sleeved, with pocket, although he couldn't finish ironing it because of a power outage. There are no pictures. Geordie is about to have a shirt made for him. Quite different, in cotton, and designed especially for him so if everything works out, I will have to find someone to take a photo of both of us to show off.

I hope you have enjoyed this picture heavy blog. I haven't done much of it as I've gone along because it seemed to take forever, but I've found a way around it. I'm sure everyone else has figured out that if you copy the picture to the desktop it goes much faster than attempting to load it directly from the camera disk, and doesn't stress the camera so much either.

I look forward to hearing from a few of you now. We have our regulars sending mail, but there are lots of people we would love to hear from. If you don't want to use the comments page you can always send an email. We have only a month left now before we head home from India. Geordie is at another computer attempting to find a train out of Varkkala to take us north. We head for Varkkala next Thursday as I said. Booking it online was a bit of an adventure but it finally got done and we will spend another 10 days there. I must really get down to the beach more to work on my tan. The face is dark but the rest of my body only sees the sun for about an hour in the afternoon when I go swim for a bit in the lovely pool which is part of our hotel complex.

And so to lunch, and a nice trip to the pool. It's hot and we need the coolness since our room is unairconditioned to save money.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Green Green

We've gone upscale, non A/C! Two days ago we arrived in Kovalam, a small resort area on the Arabian Sea, which is a mini Puerto Vallarta with it's tiny (five foot wide) malecon passing by shops and restaurants in front of a beautiful crash of surf. The beach is not perfect - some black sand mixed with the fine brown sand, making it look dirty, but the sound of the surf is lovely.

Our hotel is back aways though, amongst the swaying fronds of a palm grove (which is the name of its restaurant). We have a huge room - a suite in fact, big enough to have a three person yoga class in front of our bed (king sized) and a long sit out (balcony to the uninitiated) which itself looks at more palm trees. There is a small Hindu temple down the road aways with a long drone of music for parts of the day. We have a sitting room too, with its own fan, and another bed in case we have a fight or something. The bathroom is nice white tiles and the room is kept spotless by the invisible staff.

Now about that air conditioning. We booked non a/c to save money, and we thought the hotel was on the beach and we would have sea breezes. Not so, it is back inland aways and there is no breeze so it's pretty hot. We then thought what the hell - we'll ask for air conditioning and pay extra - hah! It's another 30 dollars extra so we'll just take the fan. In fact it's quite pleasant to sit outside on the balcony most of the day, since the place is mostly in shade all day.

Kerala is the next state up the coast from Tamil Nada and is so so green. The vegetation is lush and the colours are very rich. We drove again, and on the way even got a little culture in since our driver asked if we wanted to stop at the Padmanabhapuram Palace which although in Tamil Nadu is considered the finest surviving example of traditional Keralan architecture. It's even administered from Kerala. This palace was once where the rulers of Travancore had their administrative and cultural centre - Travancore being another small state squashed in between TN and KR.

The palace is huge and quite empty of furniture, except for two beds - one owned by the king which was given him by the Dutch East India Company, and the other by the queen. The entire building is constructed of wood and granite and we were told by one of the many guides stationed throughout the building that it is the largest wooden palace in all of Asia. And it's large - it took us an hour to walk through, getting our bits of information from the strategically located guides, looking around, marvelling at the ceiling in one area, made with rosewood and decorated with 90 carved flowers everyone unique. The floors are also mirror polished, using we are told, a mixture of crushed shells, coconuts, egg whites and plant juices. The dance hall is the most highly polished and is in fact called the Mirror room.

The architecture is all high ceilings with low walls. I guess people sat down to look out because it's not easy to see the views without bending down if one is standing up. It's cooler though because of the high ceilings. In one area, just to contradict myself, the entire room is carved granite, each pillar and piece carved from a single block of stone (not like Mamallapuram where the whole building is one piece of stone).

Back to the real world, Kovalam is full of package tourists. We arrived on Friday, and yesterday morning a group arrived at our hotel and settled themselves in. You can always tell because they immediately go out on their balconies to check the views. (Which is what we did too, of course.) I suppose they paid for air-conditioning and are basking in it right now. Continental breakfast is included too, and here that means, juice, coffee, lots of it, toast and eggs - gotta love those continentals. There isn't a sign of local restaurants where the folks eat off bamboo leaves, or coffee is hurled from cup to bowl. The restaurant in our place is a little pricy, but the ones on the sea wall facing the surf all have very similar menus and the prices are better. Lots of food for the people on the package tours - and us too - I confess, I had pasta our first night, but hey it was seafood pasta, so it had local food.

Speaking of seafood reminds me of what I saw yesterday. Geordie was still sleeping, I was awake so I decided to go off for a bit of walkabout. Between our hotel and the beach are those green palm groves and even some former rice paddies, but between the fields and groves are raised walkways so one doesn't have to go out to a road to get to the shops and restaurants. There are even tailors set up on the backsides of all the shops so if we wanted a shirt made we could. Out on the beach though was a sight that is probably unique to the area - teams of fishermen, hauling their nets in from the sea, like a great tug of war, and singing together all the while. Very atmospheric. I must get up in the morning and go for a few pictures.

Tonight our hotel is doing a mini version of the Kathakali Dance performances of Kerala. These are ordinarily events that go all night and maybe into the next night, but the hotel's offering is only three and a half hours. The first hour and a half is labelled as "Makeup and Dressing" and apparently it is part of the package paid for. I think it is quite the production, so we will have to pay our money and find out what it's all about. The stories are taken from the Mahayana, one of the seminal books of the India mythos, so we will probably have little idea what's going on, although we are promised ongoing commentary - tourists like us need all the help we can get.

We are settled in here for a week and then we are hoping to spend 10 days further north in another beach village called Varkkala. We've asked for a reservation and again are asking for non A/C, and the place I've requested is described as having all rooms with sea view, so if we get it, maybe we can get the sea breezes that go with them.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Clash of the Titans

We've been in Kanyakumari for almost three days now. It really is the end of India - it feels like we can go no further - the land just stops and the ocean begins. Really, because this is something of a peninsula we get the sense of being surrounded by water wherever we go, except back inland and north. Here is the meeting place of the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south and the Arabian Sea to the west.

The first titanic clash is that of these three great bodies of water with the land. The waves here are rough and crash up on rocks just off the beach. There are many pilgrims who come to bathe in the waters here and they are working to stay upright as the waves come in. And on shore the wind is strong, and almost constant. We have a very nice hotel room, with a balcony but sometimes it's almost impossible to sit out there to read with the wind rushing around flapping pages. How do the crows fly in this? Our windows rattle and bang all night although we leave the door open to get the air circulating. We booked the room as non- aircon, which is fine since there is a good fan and that wind, but there is an A/C unit in the room. Wonder if we switch it on they'll notice. Using it would add 300 Rupees to the cost of the room. (That's $7.50!)

Inland by the way the wind is going to work with a very large windmill electrical generating system. We can see the many many windmills towering over the landscape north of us in the haze of the air.

Clash number two came on waking our first morning - the clash of religions. At 5:15 the Muslim call to prayer began and almost with it began the siren call of loud music from a Hindu temple somewhere in the vicinity. And not to be outdone, the Catholic Church began ringing its bells wildly shortly after. The Hindus won out though - the siren call went on for an hour! Luckily my ear plugs are very good - too bad Geordie can't seem to use them - he depends on silicone ones which just don't do the job.

The Catholic Church wins out in the building category though. We have seen a few temples including one on the shore but the church is huge and dominates the skyline of our view. I wish I knew the correct terminalogy - is it a Romanesque church or a Gothic one? No matter, it's like something out of France or maybe it's Portugal - our lady of lourdes, fatima? There is a tall central spire, and two smaller spires at the front, and a long nave with arched ceilings. The nave is empty though - I am certain the congregation sits on the floor. The main decoration in the church is a large statue of the Virgin Mary with below her a Crucified Christ about half the size.

It's surprising that the Church wins out here. We were in a Hindu temple in Trichy on a short tour we took with a driver. The temple complex has six walls surrounding the main temple at the centre. We were able to walk through the area although we were not able to enter the final temple. There are many minor temples around it though which we were able to view. Inside one area there was a large elephant blessing the congregants who placed a penny in its trunk. Penny in, trunk went up, tapped the head of the person, then trunk over to drop the coin in the pot of the mahout manageing the elephant. (I thought the elephant was perhaps a little crazed though - it never stopped moving its trunk, even when there was no one to make an offering.)

The first three areas of the temple are so large that there are shops and stalls and even people living inside them. That's pretty impressive. We had to walk around the whole area in our bare feet which was quite uncomfortable in the area covered in sand. Today, by the way, we went for a walk in the terrible midday sun, to a village north along the shore where there is another Catholic Church just as big as the one here, although it's insides are not as impressive.

Clash number three is cricket. Our balcony looks over the back of the hotel and directly behind it is a tank. This is a large area for holding water, with steps down to it for bathing - these are common in India - but this one is dry and is host to what appears to be an all day cricket match. From after breakfast until dinner time or later there are a group of young men playing cricket, with real bats and balls but with stones for a goal. We cannot make hide nor hair of the rules. Sometimes they bat and the ball goes off into the wild and they just stand there. Then at other times they bat and the ball goes off into the wild and they run back and forth between goals. No rhyme nor reason is you ask me. We do know that if the batter hits the ball and someone on the other team catches it before it hits the ground the other team is out - we have at least learned that.

Clash the fourth. Out beyond the last bit of land are two small islands. They are connected to the main land by some very rusty looking old scows which take people over to see the monuments to two of South India's heroes. Vivekananda has a temple complex, in dark stone, domed, which marks the spot where this holy man swam out one day and spent time meditating until he decided to take off on a pilgrimage around India to take his views on peace within the Hindu idea. He is obviously revered here.

The second island has the mightier statue - this one is exactly 133 feet tall and represents the major Hindu poet Thiruvalluvar who wrote a very famous piece with exactly 133 verses. We saw his poems written on a wall when we were on our tour out of Varanasi sometime ago now. Every verse. Of course they are in Hindi so we don't understand a word.

Back on the mainland there is one other Titan, whose monument we visited yesterday. It is the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, whose ashes were ceremoniously scattered in the water of the seas here. It is not a large place and it's in a very pastel shade of pink decorated with white, and in a very odd building, something like an old movie theatre with a rounded roof line and a squat tower next to it. But there is a hole in the rood where on October 2, Gandhi's birthday, the sun shines down on the place where his ashes were kept for the day before scattering.

We are here for one more day - then we are off to spend a week in Kovalam, a beach town in the state of Kerala. I imagine our next message will be from there. Until then, you can always get out your atlases and check the neighbourhood out.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Play With Your Food

We're in South India now, and the food service here is just a little different. This is the land of no forks and knives, although you might get a small spoon. But, you are expected to eat with your hand - your right hand that is. We have hit several restaurants in the area of our hotel, including our own, although we have been avoiding that one since Geordie accidentally over-tipped. It set a precedent so when we have been there since we get over-attentive service and a waiter who hangs around after we have received the bill practically salivating. MInd you we have noticed that we are intiguing in most of the local restaurants where the waiters seem to enjoy standing next our tables watching us eat. A little unnerving, but we are coping.

Breakfast: We had our first South Indian Breakfast this morning - a Masala Dosai, which is a very large thin rice batter (I think) pancake with a filling of potato, onion and curry type flavourings along with four small pots of sauces to eat with it. Included in the sauces are a dal (split peas, but very thin), a coconutty, oniony flavoured white paste, a bright orange red sauce with a tomato base perhaps but spicy too, and a yellow-green sauce whose provenance I cannot explain, although it is tasty if also hot!

The point is to pour at least the dal or is it a sambar, onto your dosai, then place the other mixtures which are thicker, on the banana leaf provided (It's under the dosai), for dipping or mixing. With your fingers. Right hand only. It is hard to remember that, as I hold down one side with my left hand I suddenly remember to let go and do my best to tear the pancake with only my right hand.

We had coffee with it too - milk coffee which is served with a small metal cup, and a bigger open bowl. The coffee is poured from bowl to cup to bowl, repeatedly, ostensibly to cool the coffee although I think it also serves to mix the sugar in. Not being a fan of sweet coffee, I don't mind leaving the sugar in the bottom of the cup. The coffee has been tasty though, so no complaints.

Lunchtime: Here is where the thali comes to the fore. Usually the locals are provided with a large banana leaf which they first wet down, pouring the rest onto the table which I suspect sticks it to the surface. Then they are given dabs of diferent mixtures again, similar to the breakfast sauces although there are a few more - including a really sour yogourt which I can't bring myself to eat, and a raita of the same yogourt with slices of red onion. The sambar is the most liquid of the sauces. These dabs are provided by men who walk around with their containers, three of them attached and adding piles of the mixtures if you want more. It's all you can eat, by the way.

Onto the banana leaf is then piled a heap of steaming white rice, and a big poppadom is added as well (that's a crunchy yellow cracker like bread, a little spicy, very crispy). The trick is to mix the flavourings into the rice with your fingers, getting it good and saucy, then pinching up a pile with the fingertips and stuffing it into your mouth. The locals seem better at it than me, no doubt it's the practice, but we have been doing fine. I haven't yet dropped a heap onto my trousers. I watched a woman nonchalantly mixing everything, doing the mixing over and over until she seemed to have created an almost solid object to pop into her mouth. I'm not as efficient.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the first thing one does before eating is go to the hand washing facility and wash up. Everybody does it, so we have to remind ourselves to do it too. Don't want to look gauche.

One little thing - they don't seem to trust us. We have been getting what appears to be similar food as everyone else, but we are given ours on a metal platter, with a banana leaf cut to fit. We don't know for sure if ours is different - the dishes of savouries all look very similar to the rest but we just aren't getting the big banana leaf thing. I would prefer that because when you are finished you show it by folding your banana leaf at the centre rib, enclosing your mess and having a nice tidy package for the cleaning people to get rid of. Notice by the way how bio-friendly this is - everything is biodegradable, although I don't know how they get rid of the stuff - burning?, just dumped in the garbage?

Dinner is not different - it does seem that thalis are the order of the day at lunchtime while meals are smaller in the morning and evening. There are other choices of breakfast dishes too - iddlys which are small steamed rice puffs served with sambars, vadai which looks like a thick fried doughnut served with sambars again and no doubt things we have yet to identify.

It's all vegetarian too - lots of potatoes, cauliflower, carrot, onion, tomato, green beans and nary a bit of meat. Several restaurants in the area advertise non-veg so there are other choices, but we haven't tried any. Another option is Chinese food - fried noodles, manchurian flavoured dishes, and several things which are named but also have added the number 65, such as Noodles 65. We have no idea what it is, although I suspect it's a flavouring, probably comes in a bottle, hence the ease of name, anything with sauce 65 being so identified.

We think we are losing a little weight finally - maybe there is something to this vegetarian thing, although I must say, almost all the flavours are very similar, a la curry. I think the variety comes in the degree of heat, and the hot, sweet, salty sour flavours.

This is definitely not a tourist town which explains the fact that the food is geared to the locals. Once we hit a beach town where tourists hang out we will again be able to get eggs, omelets, toast, maybe porridge (lots of that in the north), banana or honey or chocolate pancakes and mixtures thereof. It's not exactly like home but there is the sense of it being comfort food so occasionally one just has to have it.

We are heading to the tip of India tomorrow evening, to another nontourist town, so we will be continuing to eat thalis. Maybe tomorrow we will convince the restaurant to give us a real thali complete with banana leaf - if we point and insist. There is one advantage to the food here though - it's cheap. This morning's breakfast cost a grand total of 65 rupees - that's about $1.50, for two people, yes, 75 cents each. Oh and that was with two coffees for me and one for Geordie. We have paid as much as 150 rupees here too, so it's not always so cheap (smile - what makes $2.00 a person expensive?).

We will be searching out another restaurant tonight - we are trying all of them, so we are having fun. Tomorrow we don't leave town until 10:40 pmor whenever the train arrives after that (an hour or two?), so we still have time to get that real thali. No matter, my fingers are at the ready, as soon as I go clean them, so we will enjoy the food no matter what.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Have Horn, Will Travel

We arrived in Trichy yesterday after a five hour drive from Pondicherry. Confession time - we did not travel by bus, but by private car. It seemed so much more civilized. I imagine people will stop reading the blog now that we have become car travellers and have stopped having bus adventures!

By the way, Trichy's official name is Tiruchchirappalli or something similarly spelled. Geordie was afraid we might have gone to the wrong hotel since there are a lot of long-named towns in this area starting with the letter T. But the hotel had a reservation for us and everything matched up with the map we had so looks like we got to the right place.

The drive was almost incident free. We came close to wiping out two children on a bicycle who drove onto the highway without bothering to look our way. The driver screeched to a halt, the children fell off the bike and then we continued on our way. The kids looked more shocked than injured, don't worry. Geordie wondered aloud that it was a surprise that the kids seemed to grow up, what with the traffic they deal with.

The five hour drive was a 225 km trip, so we didn't make really good time like we might in Canada. About half that distance was along a terrible road, which is being rebuilt as a four lane highway. It is the second worst road I have ever been on, after the one we drove in Zambia. At a few places the road had been recently surfaced so the driver drove up to a 100 km an hour. I worried that he would have had little experience driving at that speed. Most of the time was spent driving at about 50 to 60 km an hour, except in towns and villages where 20 was fast and the worst potholed sections which were a matter of weaving around potholes, motorcycles, giant trucks, crowded buses, bullock carts and overloaded farm equipment! I spent 10 minutes counting the beeps the driver made on his horn, and it worked out to 8.8 per minute. That's close to 500 per hour, so 2500 for the trip. I'm sure this is a good estimate because that 20 minutes was counted over some country driving and some village driving (yes in the same 10 minutes).

Along the way we saw lots of amazing sights. Part of the area is for sugar cane and the farm vehicles were heaped about 10 to 12 feet above the upper level of the cart's walls. And the trucks are often bulging at the seams with huge tarps hiding the unidentifiable loads. Of course as well as carrying lots of people, the motor bikes are used for delivery too - and often it's some long load carried sideways. I saw what looked like a beam for a small house carried blithely held on by the driver's feet. There was another driver who had a huge basket between him and the handlebars. The bad news is that these motorcyclists are ignored by the car and bus drivers who pull out to pass other cars, trucks or buses without any regard for motorcyles. Every motorcycle for itself I guess and survival of the fittest. How did we not see any accidents?

When we arrived at Trichy it was a blessing to get out of the car. The fact that our hotel is across the street from the bus station means we get a cacophony of horns from there as well. We talked about looking for another hotel and did a survey of several within walking distance but a bit further removed from the station. But last night the noise quieted down quite a lot and with the sound of the air conditioner, it was quite bearable. Besides this morning we woke to find someone had slipped a copy of the Indian Express newspaper under the door so we got our dose of news without even having to go out and find a paper at a restaurant.

So here we stay for three more days. We are taking the train next - an overnighter from here to the very tip of India at Kanyakumari (I can't guarantee that spelling) - it's also known as Cape Comorin. It is the meeting of the Bay of Bengal, the India Ocean and the Arabian Sea so there will no doubt be a lot of water. I wonder how they work out the borders of oceans amd seas anyway.

There will be another blog later. We have to tell you about the food here. It's a little different from where we have been so it deserves its own entry. Later.