Thursday, February 28, 2008


Kerala has hundreds of miles of water channels winding through its coastal areas and the city of Alleppey is one doorway into this enchanting realm. The city itself is intersected by several canals, and if it weren’t for the abundant palm trees and scores of umbrella shops (essential year round thanks to both the monsoon and sun), you might be convinced you were strolling in Amsterdam. There is also a nice beach on one end of town, frequented by a mostly Indian clientele eating ice cream, flying homemade kites and braving the crashing waves in t-shirts and jeans.

From Alleppey we organized a cruise on a houseboat built to resemble the rice barges that traveled the backwaters not so long ago. Houseboats, or “kettuvallam” as they are known locally, are big business in Alleppey, with hundreds of them already plying the waterways and more being built all of the time. It was an expensive endeavor by India standards, but a steal by any other – for just $100 we got a deluxe boat with 2 beautiful bedrooms, the service of 3 crew members and a delectable Keralan-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. After roughing it in some pretty dingy rooms, it felt entirely luxurious to us, when we entered the boat and were handed coconuts (complete with straws and umbrellas) and told to sit down and relax. Heaven.

The backwaters are spectacular. Emerald green rice paddies butt up against rows of towering palms that cast undulating shadows onto the dark canals below as the sun dips toward the horizon. Children ride their bikes down the narrow stretch of land that connects them to their neighbors, excited to splash and play in the water with friends. Men propel themselves along in carved wooden canoes with paddles or a long pole, casting out finishing nets and waiting patiently. Women beat clothes clean with rocks or carve the flesh out of coconuts in preparation for the next meal. Kingfishers perch on telephone wires to stalk prey from above, while herons and egrets dip their long necks into the brackish water in search of fish.

The wetlands are a truly magical place – and an ecosystem in danger around the world. We feel lucky to have experienced the Kerala backwaters in this way, but hope that the local government will keep the desire to grow tourism in check with the need for strong environmental protections.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fort Kochi

Having gotten our fill of the party life, we headed down to Kerala, Goa’s tamer and more pious younger sister. Gone were the liquor stores on every corner, and back were the days of illicit beers served in tea pots that we had first come across in Rajasthan. But, change is good and Fort Kochi – a beautiful coastal city with lots of character - welcomed us to the state with open arms.

Cochin was another Portuguese colony and the old town retains a lot of its historic charm, with a handful of attractive Cathedrals, including the oldest in India. But the Portuguese were not the only foreigners to leave their marks on the city – there is a Dutch cemetery, fishing nets borrowed from the Chinese, and even a handsome synagogue in the area know as Jew Town. Today the city also has a thriving Muslim community, and of course, lots of tourists from the far corners of the world.

Although Fort Kochi’s biggest industry these days is tourism, it is still a working fishing town, with a series of large Chinese fishing nets strewn along the shore. It takes 5 people to work these devices and while the catch looks pretty meager, they are still in operation at daybreak and sunset. The fishermen who take to the sea on boats seem to have better luck hauling in a substantial load of squid, fish and crab, and auction it off to the highest bidder immediately upon arriving at the shore. Fishmongers also line the sidewalk nearby, selling seafood by the kilo that you can bring to any of the local restaurants to have grilled for a small fee. Delicious.

Jew Town today is little more than a relic from history, as nearly all of the decedents of the original refugees who were welcomed here by the Kerala Maharajas a thousand years ago have returned to Israel. But the neighborhood has reinvented itself, with antique dealers and local artisans selling reminders of Southern India’s glorious past, such as intricately carved wooden doors and silver-plated swinging chairs. Alongside the antique shops are several art galleries showcasing a much more contemporary vision of India. As a burgeoning center for modern art, Fort Kochi is home to many talented young painters, sculptors and photographers.

A more ancient art form – Kathakali theater – is also practiced today in Fort Kochi. Events from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are acted out by incredibly costumed characters who use animated facial and hand expressions, rather than words, to tell stories through dance. On sacred occasions the storytelling goes on all night, and actors must study for nearly a decade to become proficient.

Fort Kochi’s modern day cousin, Ernakulam resides across the bay and is a modern city in India’s most progressive state. Kerala is run by the Communist party and boasts the highest literacy rate of any area in the developing world. But, its politics have also hindered outside investment and economic growth has lagged behind some other parts of India. Fortunately, the tourism industry – catering to both newly moneyed Indians and foreigners – is helping to bring some much needed opportunity to an educated populace that has historically had little career potential. While there appear to be both benefits and drawbacks to a highly socialized state, there continues to be strong ongoing support for the current political leanings, with red banners and posters saturating the towns we passed on our bus ride south.

Friday, February 15, 2008


We felt it only proper to celebrate New Years on the beach, so we left Panaji for Arambol, one of the northern most beaches in the State. Goa is the stuff of legends, with the hippies first discovering its pleasures in the 60s and the ravers reinventing it as “Disco Valley” in the 80s and 90s. Some of that legend has turned to dust, with hotels catering to packaged tourists buying up the prime real estate and the government imposing a ban on loud music after 10 pm. But, it still seems to draw in the crowds around the holidays and Arambol, at least, still retains much of the relaxed vibe that attracted new agers long ago.

We rented a simple bungalow near the cliffs and spent our days wandering the beach with the resident cows. Every five feet we came across aging hippies building sand castles with their naked flower children, dreaded college drop outs practicing poi, yogis doing handstands or loners listening to Ipods and dancing with themselves in the surf. And then there were the groups of young Indian guys, dressed in jeans and loafers, who were clearly using their lunch break to scope out western women in bikinis. It was humanity its quirkiest and it provided near constant entertainment.

We took a small break from the time warp to join the 21st century for the Sunburn Electronic Music Festival on Calangute beach, followed by the BLive party at the Sinquerim helipad later that night. Even though Carl Cox was the headliner, the crowds consisted of many more Indians than vacationing Brits. It was fascinating to watch the juxtaposition of traditional and emerging culture, with some of the young Indians clearly feeling excited, but also a little awkward to be taking part in something so far removed from their everyday lives for the holiday weekend.

On New Year’s Eve we had a great dinner and then hit a few hilarious dance parties along the beach front. At midnight, we went for a dip in the ocean, taking in the fireworks shows on both ends of what seemed to be an endless stretch of sand. It was pretty epic, if I do say so myself.


We took an overnight bus ride from Hampi to the coastal state of Goa. It was jam packed with travelers headed to the beach for the holidays and offered little rest thanks to a group of raucous Israelis singing, playing guitar and coughing loudly in the back of the bus.

Our first stop was Panaji, a charming Portuguese port town that left us utterly confused on arrival. Where were the cows (and accompanying cow patties) clogging every city artery? And what happened to the noisy tuk tuks belching choking smoke from their exhausts? And wait – what is this? An honest to goodness, bona fide sidewalk? One with enough room to actually walk on? And how about the pictures of Jesus tacked onto every other pastel colored building? Had our bus taken a mysterious detour to another country, say somewhere in the Mediterranean? This was a new side of India that was a far cry from the one we had gotten to know in the North.

Although we relished the thrill of being somewhere exotic and ancient and dreamlike that we got from being in Varanasi, Rajasthan or Hampi, it was a nice treat to be somewhere that seemed just a teeny bit more familiar. We went to the movies. We hid from the seething sun, drinking lattes in the air conditioned comfort of the CafĂ© Coffee Day. We ate delicious seafood dinners – not just Indian, but Thai, Chinese and Portuguese too. We read the Economist. We bought tickets for a late night music festival.

Panaji proved to be a great place to unwind and recharge for a spell, and the perfect place to spend Christmas. It’s home to a beautiful white cathedral, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, perched high on a hill, and its steps were often crowded with various Santa Clause imposters tossing out candy and posing for pictures with children. The homes and guest houses were decorated with lights and paper stars, and carols piped through the feeble sound systems of stores and restaurants.

A few kilometers from Panaji is Old Goa, the original seat of the Portuguese empire in India. It’s now a World Heritage Site and home to a collection of old churches, some in pristine condition and others in ruins. The real draw for the faithful is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which houses the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa. St. Francis Xavier is credited with spreading Catholicism to the East, but his true claim to fame may be that upon his death on an island near China his body appeared to be impervious to the decay that afflicts most human corpses. It was deemed a miracle and his remains (or at least what is left of them today) are on display in the church. Indians crowded toward the coffin to gawk and say a prayer.

Panaji is not without its Hindu roots as well, as evidenced by the beautiful temple on the east side of the hill that splits the city down the middle. But, standing proudly in a light salmon colored sheath, it too could not escape the influence of the Mediterranean people who once called this place home. Another great example of the great diversity of influence that makes India such a fascinating place to visit.