Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Wedding Party Intro

Here's the dance number we cajoled our friends into helping us perform at the wedding reception, the evening before we left for all the good times documented below:

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Photos online!

I don't know if we're ever gonna get around to illustrating the rest of this blog with photos, but we've managed, in the past week and a half, to isolate 259 of our finest pix from the honeymoon and put them up as a Flickr set for your enjoyment. So, enjoy!

I've also posted a separate set documenting some sign painting we encountered along the way, including a lot more of the painted loggers' trucks in Alleppey.

And if you want more details about something, ask us.

Oh, also: occasionally, and not nearly often enough, we remembered that our camera shoots video, so on YouTube we have a panoramic scene of a morning on a kettuvallam in the backwaters, and a short medley of footage taken during some rickshaw rides through Ernakulam.

And some of you have asked to see the movie on which we based our dance number at the wedding reception. It's called The Train, and the music we danced to is here. As soon as I can get hold of some video footage of our version of the dance, I'll post it, too.

I just realized I can upload video to this blog. So, here's our backwater morn. If it doesn't work, try the link above.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

...and in a flash, we're home - as though we'd never been away. Cat's on the bed, the usual pile of unopened bills in a pile on the table, just a little bigger. I'm hungry for a burrito.

The trip passed in a haze. Neither of us slept. Watched a bunch of movies, but I can't remember any of them. Some big fat Indian guy had the window seat in our row. He kept the shade down the whole ride from Singapore to Seoul to San Fran (not that there's much to see over the sea, but I wanna know), and never once got up to use the toilet. I think he'd developed the ability to expel waste through snoring, which he was doing about 80% of the way.

We flew out of Kochin at 11:30 Saturday night, got to Singapore at 6:30 Sunday morning and left 3 hours later. We had a brief layover in Seoul around 4:30 Sunday afternoon, crossed the International Dateline and landed in SF just before noon on the same day.

Deb and I took a shower and opened the wedding gifts that came in our absence, registering names and addresses for thank you notes. I'm waiting for the camera to upload it's pictures to iPhoto as I write this. Then, I'll get a burrito and maybe make some semi-conscious effort to post some photos online. That might not happen 'til later in the week, when I'll also try to cull together some memories of the final week. The overriding atmosphere was RAIN. It rained a lot for the last week and a half. Leelu said she's 52, and in all her life she'd never seen rain in Kerala in March. Delhi has pledged Rs 35 crore (about $9 million) in emergency funds for the rice farmers in these backwater paddies whose crops have drowned this week.

We both gained a little weight in India, which we weren't expecting; but we know thanks to the bathroom scale we received as a gift, and we aren't surprised, because we ate a lot a lotta good food all over. Actually, Deb might have a different take on that. She finally reached her limit on Indian food yesterday afternoon, and was dismayed to find the only veg options on the flights home were Indian curry dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That said, the only time either of us got ill at all was one morning earlier in the week, when dehydration, and a big smelly dog, and the sight of a cat retching conspired to make Deb nauseous. Neither of us had any hint of food borne illness. Somehow we inoculated ourselves effectively. Maybe it was the wedding dinner.

Nonetheless, I want a burrito.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Not appropriate honeymoon fare

We've been in Cochin (Kochi) since the evening of 15 Mar. That morning, we didn't put enough pep in our step before discovering the last morning bus to Munnar was leaving about an hour earlier than we were prepared to board it. So, we weighed our options (stay in Kumily or leave) and decided to skip town for Kochi. This way, we're done with all our long distance bussing and can dawdle around here until departure.

Kochi is at the northern tip of a peninsula, like San Francisco. It's a rather quiet, tourist centric burg, for having been the center of the Malabar coast spice trade and pursuant duelling empire drama for much of the last five centuries. Its position at the inlet of a bay made it suitable for a fort in those days. But Ernakulam, the Oakland to its SF, and more directly accessible from the spice, rubber, and coconut plantations, has taken over its business responsibilities. And much of the shipping is loaded and unloaded from Willingdon Island, built like Treasure Island on landfill dredged up from the bay around it. So, it's a little like stepping into an alternate universe, wherein, among other differences, the ferry across the bay only costs five cents.

We'd called ahead from Mickey's Cottage to Alice's friend, Sheeba, at Greenwoods Bethlehem Homestay. She said she had a room open, but only a small one. Turns out, on the roof of their three story home, they've built a thatch-roofed pavilion; and within that, they've built a row of thatch bedrooms, with a thatch WC at the end. Looking out from our thatch "hut", the view was almost entirely of surrounding treetops and birds, as though this place were a jungle -- and it's a pretty dense little residential area, so that was cool. But less cool was that the walls were as thick as a sheet of woven palm leaves (oh, that reminds me: we bussed down from Kumily on Palm Sunday and passed a lot of families walking home from church brandishing palm leaves). Also, we'd had about all we needed on this honeymoon of non-en suite bathrooms in Kumily. So, although Sheeba and her husband Ashley seemed like exactly the friendly hosts we'd like to spend a week in Kochi with, we had to move. They're very busy there, even now in the "off" season. Apparently, they have a good write-up in the Lonely Planet South India guide, but as Sheeba pointed out, "there are over 300 homestays in Kochi". So, we decided to find ourselves a more honeymoon-suitable abode.

And so we've moved into Leelu Roy's homestay, a little closer to the travelers' action center of Fort Cochin proper. She reminds me a little, maybe, of my mental picture of Mama Celeste -- a big, opinionated Italian woman who likes to cook. She teaches a nightly cooking class, anyway, which always seems to be full. We're taking it tonight, so we'll see how dinner goes with Mama Leelu. Anyway, we're happy to wind up our days in India upstairs from her.

Despite the comforts of our new home, we both had trouble sleeping the night before last. Deb thinks it might've had to do with the few sips of Coke she had in the afternoon. Maybe she's right for the both of us: I drank the rest of the bottle, but I haven't ever noticed caffeine having too pronounced an effect on me. Also, I went to sleep pretty quickly when we turned in, around 10. It was only when I woke up around 2 that I thought I might be up for the night. My mind was whirring through the run of the mill set of frets: love, money, growing old. Maybe it was kicked in by the creeping awareness of the impending end of our vacation. Prob'ly a little by flipping through nbsigns gmail the night before, and looking at checking account balances. Not appropriate honeymoon fare.

I'm not especially worrisome about love of late, but on the busride down from Kumily, Deb and I split up the iPod headphones and shared a listen to the Valentine's Day episode of This American Life. They spent the hour with couples who'd been together for many years, investigating the qualities of love long, long past its "falling in" date. The first story was from Richard Bausch, about a man on his 70th birthday, whose 45+ year marriage had lately become argumentative, testy, distant. He tries to grasp (and explain and assert) that the memories of the early highs of love are worth everything that ensues; that had he been given foreknowledge of the antipathy he and his wife are in now, he still would have chosen the whole package. So, in the middle of our first night at Leelu's, I began imagining a future of antipathy with Deb. Not a recipe for sound sleep. And absolutely, not appropriate honeymoon fare!

The antidote to this line of thinking wasn't making itself apparent in the shadows cast by the moon across the spinning ceiling fan blades. I suppose now it's to be present in the present with the comfort and security and passion that we have, as much as I can. That awareness certainly isn't permanently "on", but it's not likely to ever be more frequently on than it is right now. So, dig it, brother. Richard Bausch seems to suggest that being mindful of this, here, now, is going to make our later troubles worth it.

But as I say, I opted on this night for worry.

I noticed on a couple of occasions I was lying on my left side, unusual in its novelty. Not only haven't I been lying on my left side for the past couple of months while my broken arm's been in a brace; I haven't been laying on that side much for... well, since spring of '06, when I came back from an afternoon of surfing with some pain in my shoulder that I never got diagnosed, but which never really went away; at least not until I broke my wrists and stopped noticing it. Now, lying on my left side, I notice I'm not completely comfortable per se, but I think I can sleep there: in fact, I think I did eventually fall asleep there. I mean, my upper arm is in its brace, which has to be placed just right if it's gonna tolerate me laying on it. And the outside of my forearm is a little sensitive and/or numb (I can't tell!) due to radial nerve damage from the humerus fracture, ha ha. Maybe that'll have some bearing on how aware I am of the screws and plate in that wrist in years to come. And that's how I started thinking: if I just keep breaking things, it'll help diminish the pain of older things broken. And thus shall I age... NOT APPROPRIATE HONEYMOON FARE!

We took the ferry to Ernakulam earlier that day and visited a tailor, to have a suit made. Alice and Thomas had recommended this place, Raymond's, on Marine Drive. I was anticipating an odd experience. It turned out to be less exotic for being in India than for being a trip to a tailor to have a suit made.

Deb and I talked out in advance how much I was willing to spend on a suit. It's a tough proposition. I've got two suits I'm happy with. One, that fits me perfectly (I think), I bought at a vintage store on Haight Street for $40. But it's a sharkskin, and therefore not suitable for more dour or professional occasions. The other suit, a charcoal pinstripe wool 3-piece by Saks, I bought at Goodwill for $15. A few sizes too large, it sat in a pile in a bedroom corner for a couple years before I had need of it. I think it was Amber and Colin's wedding. Nothing dour or professional, but as I recall close enough to some other besuited occasion at which there was sufficient crowd overlap to warrant a change of suit. So, I took it to the Chinese lady on Mission at 18th, with my sharkskin over the other arm, and said "Make that suit the same size as this suit." And she did, for $70. So, two used suits that fit well and look good, for $125. What's a new one worth?

Nothing, if it's not what I want. The key item for me to bear in mind during the process was to be clear I was getting what I wanted, in every detail. I know I'm prone to compromise, and to diminish the value of my wishes. So, I had to struggle to remain assured that the points on which I was willing to compromise weren't worthy of defending, and vice versa. And frankly, there are a lot of things I'm not sure about in a suit. Like, I was pretty sure I wanted it double breasted, but then part of me was also leaning toward 1964 Hard Day's Night. I let Deb talk me out of double breasted, and I dropped the Beatles look, too, because both are a little too uncommon, and I'm already treading unstable ground for me. I want something that looks good and right for suity things. Not too attention grabbing.

And blah, blah, ble-argh -- I'm boring myself to tears with suit talk. Three button, side slits, flat front, wool/poly blend, brace buttons, no belt loops, pocket flaps, lapel notches, boutonniere hole, extra pockets here, here, and here -- it all got worked out. But not before they had me try a dozen off the rack suits; and Henry, the Scot who we'd met in Alleppey, came in to influence what I want with what he wants (linen!); and I very nearly settled for less; and ultimately: I got something that might be too flashy -- I can't tell anymore. I'm bored with it. What was my point?

Walking back to the ferry from Raymond's after my big purchase, I was a little more cognizant of people asking for handouts. There aren't many, although maybe more per square mile in Ernakulam than in other places we've been. It's a bigger city. Still, less than in SF. Nonetheless, the poverty and disfigurement is often more dire, or at least apparent. And I began to wonder that night, what a suit is worth on a global economic scale. I'd just established its value to me. I didn't even try haggling (I'm no good at it anyway) when they told me my suit would cost Rs 7613. Rs 2500 is for labor, the rest is fabric. I met Stanley, the man who would be sewing it. I don't know how little of the Rs 2500 is his in the end. I know Rs 2500 is not much less than I paid the Chinese lady to alter my suit a couple years ago. She was the boss there, and her seamstress was very appreciative of the $10 tip I gave her (which reminds me: I've got to have a decent tip on hand for Stanley when I go try it on -- it's a very tip-centric economy here). I'm sure the boss at Raymond's must haggle much harder for the fabric when he buys it, than I did for the suit. So, somewhere, Mr. Raymond is tipping his chauffeur with the profit he made on the fabric for my suit, maybe even buying his family dinner as well. And Stanley may put a little extra in the plate on Good Friday, time off for which he took into account in determining whether or not he could get the suit to me before our flight out. How much further down does the suit money trickle? Indeed, even had I bought a suit at Nordstrom's, in SF, instead, some portion of that money might tickle the palm of a rickshaw wallah somewhere on the subcontinent before it's through.

The day we left SF, we stopped at Get Lost travel store so Deb could get a small bag to carry valuables. Looking at their book collection, I decided on a whim to pick up Mike Davis' Planet of Slums. NOT APPROPRIATE HONEYMOON FARE! I've been slogging through its litany of horrors and bleak prognoses for the future of city life for billions and billions of us. We haven't been anywhere near a slum, or even a sizable city on this trip. Yet, when I see how tenuously the infrastructures for water, electricity, waste management, and transit hang together in these more rural areas, five years into a regional economic surge, amidst a much longer national boom, and without any of the pressures of overpopulation, it's all too obvious how it plays out in a "maximum city" like Mumbai, or in Bangalore, and in cities all over south Asia, east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and so on.

It's enough to keep one up at night. So, I've decided not to read it anymore, for the remainder of the holiday. I'll stick to the other book I brought along and have been neglecting: Norman Fischer's Opening to You: Zen Inspired Translations of the Psalms. Parts of it read like Rumi's love poems, or like the readings we included in the wedding. Much more appropriate honeymoon fare.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Jungle Story (Who wants to see a macaque?)

We're set up at Mickey's Cottage, in Kumily, on the north end of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Our host, Sujatha, sent a guy from next door, Bobby, up to our room to organize our tour and trekking schedule. To my surprise, Deb opted for a morning walk at 6 the next morning (!!!), and we chose to take a cruise on the lake later in the afternoon.

I was even more surprised that I woke up at 5:50 to get ready, particularly because the night before, we'd stayed in a hut in Kottayam and gotten bombarded with flying insects through the night. But I must have been raring to hit the jungle. Bobby knocked at 6 and we scrambled out the door.

We'd heard that the park entry permit wasn't good for ins 'n' outs, so we'd considered staying in the park for the day, to keep the same permit for the boat trip later. Not that it's a big deal: entry into the tiger reserve costs less than a movie at home. Nevertheless, Bobby said we were entering from the Tamil Nadu side this morning, and that no permits were needed from that approach.

As we pulled in by rickshaw at about 6:30, after a chai, what little light there was in the sky was filtering through a dense morning fog. Thus, all the jungle sounds were even more mysterious, and the haze held all manner of curious shapes and mystical beasts. Unfortunately, they remained mostly mystical and curious. We glimpsed what we're old was a grey hornbill amidst the grey, and some other bird with pendulous tail feathers flitted by. But for the most part we had only the atmosphere to sustain us in our thirst for the wild and exotic.

Then, Forest Guard Karunan showed up with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Turns out we'd illegally crossed into Kerala without permit, and had to follow him down an old logging road to the station. A troop of black nilgiri langurs assembled in the branches overhead to hoot as we started our march to, presumably, jail. We came to a bungalow in the woods, where we sat while a jeep was summoned and Bobby answered some questions in Malayalam. Then, we all got carted in to Project Tiger's local HQ, in Kumily. There at the station, a troop of common grey langurs was hopping from the trees and taunting the station's dog -- by far our best wildlife experience to that point in the hike.

All in all, since our "arrest", maybe 2 hours had transpired, during which Deb and I were mostly sitting on one porch or another, listening to languages we don't understand, and watching nothing happen. Eventually, Bobby was taken into a building and the door locked behind him. My stomach was starting to grumble, so I finally stood up and asked who the "boss" was, what was going on, how likely were we to get any lunch anytime soon? I was pointed to Forest Guard Karunan, our captor, and we commiserated over hunger: he'd been on duty since 5:30 the previous evening without a meal. Deb and I hadn't eaten since about 7pm. So, we got the ball rolling.

They needed us to write a statement, and dictated more or less what it had to say; specifically that our guide "misled" us, and that we "request release from punishment". I tried to phrase it as non-accusatorially toward Bobby as possible, and without including any of the ultimately inconsequential lies that Bobby had urged us to corroborate (that we were staying at his guesthouse, Blue Mangoes, and that he'd only asked Rs 400 for the both of us, not the Rs 400 each, that he'd actually asked -- neither of those points ever came up in our questioning).

After we wrote and signed our statement, and provided our fathers' names (I guess you can expect a call, guys), it was submitted and deliberated over for another half hour or so, in front of the DDPT (the Deputy Director of Project Tiger), we were told, and then -- POOF! We were free to go.

Forest Guard Karunan reminded us that he hadn't eaten since 5:30 yesterday, but not in such a way that clearly implied he was asking for a food bribe or anything, so we hoofed it back to the cottage for breakfast.

Later, we met Mickey, Sujatha's husband, who took his name from the cottage rather than the other way around. He poured us some chai, listened to our tale, and hailed a rickshaw to take us to our boat ride. He also called ahead to book boat tickets for us, as it was getting late in the day.

Our cruise on Lake Periyar yielded some distant elephant sitings, and a herd or two of bison, a couple of turtles and an eagle or two. Some deer. All from rather far away. When we got back to shore and into our rickshaw, we'd barely driven fifty yards before we were beneath a troop of nilgiri langurs and a giant grizzled squirrel. Then, before we'd left the park, we passed a sambal deer and a smaller barking deer alongside the road.

So, as with much of life, maybe, our best experiences have been at or beyond the periphery of their expected locations.

Bobby came to our door when we got back that night to make sure we (as in "he and we") were alright, i.e. were we likely to want more tours with him. He'd been detained all day and had to press family members somewhere in the legal system for help to avoid a further two days in jail. Sujatha and Mickey are sure he'll be alright, but it seems almost like he's being made an example of. Just the same, we booked our spice plantation and tea factory tour through Sujatha's nephew, Vinood. There probably aren't many illegal ways we're likely to get into a tea factory in broad daylight, but I wasn't interested in stumbling onto one.


It's a jungle out here

We arrived in the town of Kumily a few days ago. What a difference. We are high in the mountains surrounded by spice gardens and tea plantations. It is also about 20 degrees cooler here and it feels amazing. No sweating. What a relief.

Our primary reason for being here was to go to the Periyar Animal Reserve. So far in India we have only seen farm animals such as cows and goats. It is nice to see, but I've gotten quite used to the fact I have to watch out for wayward cows in the road as I try dodge rickshaws and trucks in traffic...

Anyway, we are in the jungle here. So far, we went on a small trek(Damon will tell you all about that adventure) and took a boat ride around the animal reserves lake. I was beautiful. We saw all types of bison and strange deer and many more birds. Our best find was a family of elephants that let us watch them from our boat. It is a very strange experience with these boats. First of all there must be about 5 to 10 different languages spoken on the boat and we are all playing, "I Spy" as we cruise past animals hiding in the bushes and trees all around us. But everyone gets excited when we see soething and we get out our cameras and try to get a good shot of something 200-300 feet away, in the rain. This boat ride kills all camera talent.

As usual, the best animals showed up in the parking lot of the boat station. There were many monkeys in the trees looking down on us and they were almost close enough to touch...almost.
We also saw this thing referred to as a giant squirrel, well not only is he about 4 times the usual size but he also looks kinda punk with blue and red tufts of fur on his back and his head. No tattoos though.

The next day we went on a tour of a tea plantation and factory, Connemara Tea. It was amazing to see how much work goes into tea. Women do all the picking of the leaves and the men work the machines. As with a lot of things in India I ask, what year is it? I was told women have more nimble hands... Anyway, there were many machines in the factory to cut, dry and roast the tea. This place made all the tea into different grades of tea powder. It takes about 22 hours from picked tea to turn into drinkable tea.

Next was on to the spice tour. I have to admit I'm pretty ignorant to how all this stuff grows, so the tour was very informative. We saw pepper plants, cardamon, vanilla pods, coffee, pineapple, cocoa, cinnamon, coconut, curry leaves, nutmeg trees, etc. There was a lot to learn. One of coolest things we saw was land crabs that aerate the earth around the plants. They were hiding in holes all over the place. They were about the size of hermit crabs. Who knew these things existed? After the tour, there was a elephant we got to visit to outside the spice farm. Our guide also told us that in India there were many hermaphrodite elephants which could get a female elephant pregnant or get pregnant themselves, which I also never heard of. So strange. All in all, a good tour. After that we went out to dinner, ate a lot, went back to the guesthouse and waited for the rain. We were not disappointed. The thunder and lightning was intense and it poured all night.

This morning we got up, and went for breakfast. We tried to write some emails but the power went off again. And we found ourselves in our guides spice shop were we bought many spices to bring home. Tonight, we are off to watch Kerala martial arts. Hopefully we will make it out of there alive. Pray for the power to stay on.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Back in the city

Damon and I just returned from our lovely romantic boat trip and my head is still spinning a bit. There was so much to watch as we cruised through the canals. It gave us a little break from the crazy city life in which you fear for your life crossing the streets.
Our crew were really sweet guys and they wanted to keep things romantic for Damon and I. We had excellent candlelight dinners under the stars. They picked me fresh flowers. It was very comfortable and we were well taken care of. We even had a portrait of Jesus over the honeymoon suite just to make sure we were feeling super safe.
The canals were so incredible. There people swimming and bathing all around us. Hundreds of birds flying by and enjoying the water around us. Goats and cows everywhere laying in the sun, a smattering of chickens and many, many ducks. Women washing clothes by beating them loudly on rocks. We cruised by many fruit trees, rice fields, schools and churchs. Kids played and waved at us as we went on by asking the inevitable question of, "One pen?".
I think this is the new hello for kids in India. It is screamed across the river at us. Off the boat, as soon as they see a western face they begin to follow us. It is very strange to be thought of as being rich. It is so hard to see how some of these people and live and work so hard for so little really got to me after a while. It really makes me appreciate San Francisco and how easy life is there, even when my life doesn't seem so easy.

Even though it makes me sad sometimes, the people here have been really nice to us and there is so much beauty all around them. Something money can not buy.