Tuesday, 25 September 2012

You say Thiruvananthapuram, I say Thiruvananthapuram, let's call the whole thing off

You don't always get a chance to redeem yourself but that is exactly what happened to me in India - Part Deux. Let's say there was no love lost between India and me, the first time I went. The second time, we are bosom buddies, in fact, you could say, I fell in love.
There is a photo every step of the way

When R2 was summoned to work for a week in India, I could see the desperation in the text he sent, "Mi amor, I have to return to India....I will understand if you can't come," was what I read. What I heard was, "You better get your Canadian tukus on that plane with me and save me from Delhi Belly, if you want to go to Maldives, or any other exotic holiday, for that matter."

Who can argue with that logic? My bags were packed before he crossed the threshold that evening.

Beaches, to die for

We decided to make the best of this trip and began quizzing friends that I have met in Singy for the best place to relax and enjoy a little R&R. I heard the same answer many times over, "Go to Kerala in Southern India." My mistake; last time we only went north and missed the sprawling beaches and miles of coastline. Every person we spoke to talked about the ocean, the scenery, the breezes, and the SEAFOOD....did you say seafood?

Only skirts are worn in the temple by men
The trip began with business in Bangalore, led by fantastic dinners with 16 Starters before we even got to the Mains. I had no idea what I ate in all of those courses, but I know I rolled away from the table and gasped when our guests enlightened us to the fact we had merely just begun to eat; only five more courses until the end. This type of eating went on for two nights, so needless to say, the old mumu bikini came out of hiding when we reached Kovalam, Kerala. Now I know why I see so many burkinis on the beach, not only is modesty an issue, but also what eating all those carbs for hours at a stretch does to a girlish figure.

We landed in the state's capital city of Thiruvananthapuram; I know, say that fast five times, and drove along the coast noticing picturesque beaches, mosques and shops until we reached our secluded villa at Surya Samudra Private Retreats. I don't want to turn this story into a Trip Advisor review, but "wow" was all I could say. Once again, the tall Latino knocked one outta the park with picking these digs. 

After a cool coconut drink was brought to us, we were led to a seaside villa, atop a cliff, overlooking the Arabian Sea. Quite swank for this prairie girl, but with you people that grew up with an outhouse, you may wonder why I was so excited about the outdoor shower and loo. It was a little intimidating to bathe for all monkeys' eyes to see, but I am no Kate Middleton so I think I was safe amidst all the coconut trees.

The Mosque (Masjid) on the cliff
R2, still not accustomed to the poverty and filth, decided the best course of action was to hire a car and enjoy India from the luxury of air con and four wheels instead of three on the auto rickshaws. The Samudra Retreat was on top of everything, and lo and behold a splashy SUV picked us up to tour around as we pleased. We had a brilliant time photographing the arresting scenery, people and animals we encountered along the way. 

Again, the local people were not used to seeing the western dynamic duo, so we were stopped several times to have our photos taken. This time, we took many of the locals’ pics, and they happily posed. The mosques built on cliff tops with the sea crashing down below had to be a highlight of the trip. However, what was most fun about the journey was a group of girls that jumped from a rickshaw and started to blow kisses my way.

I enjoyed the locals this time around. As we would pass the neighborhood tailor, he would greet us with, "Hello, what is your name, where are you from, look at my stuff," and give us a friendly wave. The lady selling fruit from a shack would peek out of her dwelling each time we strolled by, giving us a huge, gummy grin hoping we were in need of a lovely bunch of coconuts.

Old man outside of the mosque
Between the intriguing photo ops on every street corner, the shy people and the stellar treatment we received at Surya Samudra, India became bliss in my world. The mornings were tranquil, only being disturbed by a distance rooster cock-a-doodle-doing, and R2 squashing another ant in our outdoor biffy. The afternoons were shaded under an umbrella or spent lazing in an infinity pool that overlooked the sublime Arabian Sea. The evenings ended with spicy-infused ginger cocktails, watching the sun slowly sink into the blue-green waters of Kovalam.

Oh India, how you charmed me. I have become a Lover, not a Fighter. Not once was I shaken down for more money, taken for a drive down a back alley to "buy something from my brother," or lose three kilos in one day from flaming dysentery acquired from fresh vegetables. I left that vacation refreshed and rejuvenated. Lord knows I need it, with the formidable task of going to Thailand in less than a week.  I could get used to this life.

To read my review on Trip Advisor, click here.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Besieged in Bangalore

Selling fruit on the road

What began as a normal day in India turned into a paparazzi circus and I felt a kinship with Lady GaGa and The Biebs. After my previous experience with taxis and tuk tuks in India, I grabbed a brain and hired a driver to show me the sites. Rafiq was eager to show off his knowledge of Bangalore.

Devotion to Ganesha
I didn't have much time and the traffic is a hinderance but Rafiq took me to Shiv Mandir Temple where I chanted Om Namah Shivaya 108 times during Archana, performed Abhishek and ended the ritual with Havan. In other words, I poured milk for purity, repeated the mantra for dedication and devotion and finished with Havan, circling the fire three times for fulfillment of a wish, while connecting to God. I had no idea what I was doing but it was interesting to watch, listen and learn.

Bangalore is concrete, construction and confusion. I wanted to escape the commotion to where I always feel at home. I asked Rafiq to drive me to Lalbagh Botanical Garden to find a piece of serenity. I was well rewarded with the lush green 240 acre park, smack dab in the middle of chaotic madness.

I am not this modest...
I know in India, there is a need for modesty and discreetness. I try to not draw attention to myself but it is hard to contain this hair of mine, especially with the wind and dirt that covers most surfaces. It makes for a tangled mess. I wore a baggy T-shirt, knee-length skirt and trainers for all the walking I planned to do. Seemed low-key to me; just a woman out taking photos, like any other foreigner.

Taking photos in the park
In the park, I was minding my business, trying to sneak photos of the captivating people, when two men approached me, carrying a young child. He shoved the baby into my arms with no warning and asked to take my photo with the kid. Before I could say no, the toddler started to wail in protest. "Hey, I know I look a fright in this wind, but no need for waterworks." The man showed no concern for his traumatized daughter and whipped out an old school cell to take photos of me and his snot-soaked kid. I quickly handed back the kid and got out of there but not before another man approached me and pushed his wife beside me for another happy memory. Magically, four cameras materialized and he was snap-happy.

The blatant stares I received

"What is happening?" I wondered.  I have experienced other cultures wanting Westerners photos and I have been approached before but never to this extent or persistence. I would like to say it got better and I was able to enjoy quiet time but the photo taking became more insistent.  I told a crowd of men, "No," and they were almost begging as I hastened away from them. I got out of that situation as quickly as I could. I could hear R2 in my mind losing his marbles when I told him this story and him telling me I am too friendly and naive.

I made my way to the exit and found Rafiq waiting patiently for me, with the door held open. This 23 year-old man was a true gentleman. He told me with the traffic we had time for one more stop so he took me to an Aviation Museum. I have less than zero interest in museums or aviation for that matter, except to get me from Point A to Point B but he was so eager for me to enjoy, I couldn't say no.

She wanted money when she realized I took her photo
He dropped me off and reminded me I had 30 minutes before we hit the traffic to deposit me safely in the hotel for a business dinner. And R2 was worried about me leaving with this stranger!

There was a huge line up for the museum and I didn't think I would be able to get in with the time allotment but I paid my 20 Rupee entrance fee (35 cents CA) anyway. The security guard told all the Nationals to make way for me and I was brought to the front of the line, while the queue waited.

The museum was very old-fashioned compared to the glitz of the Singapore galleries so I made a perfunctory circle around the exhibits.  Little did I know, I was soon going to be an exhibit.

The crowd of people with many camera!
A small group of young men approached me and wanted my photo; again with the photos? I told them it was strange and creepy to take a stranger’s picture but that didn't deter them. They were so insistent I said, "Just one."

Dozens of people must have been watching this exchange of fake smiles and when I moved to the safety of a display, I was suddenly surrounded by dozens of girls shoving cameras in my face, jumping into the frame, shouting at me to look at them and touching my hair. The crowd started to gather and before I knew it, I was backed up against the walls with people gibbering in a language I had no way to understand.

The security guards came to try to break up the crowd and he told me to just smile, smile. I guess this was the only way he could contain the crowd, but not before he whipped out a cell phone and had his photo taken with me.  He said something in Hindi and the group groaned as I scurried out of there like a beaten dog, tail between my legs. I frantically looked for the exit and noticed the crowd was now following me. I had gone from being a celebrity to the Pied Piper of Bengaluru.

I dashed upstairs, caught my breath, managed to shove my camera into the bag and compose myself before heading outside to find Rafiq. I didn't tell him what happened because I didn't want to offend him by not enjoying the museum, or to make him think he brought me to a place where I was uncomfortable. People in India take their roles seriously and get offended if the service they provide isn't up to a high standard.

Back to the safety of the car taking photos
I searched the crowd to find Rafiq but not before teenagers in school uniforms started pointing, staring, and saying, "Wow, white woman." Now I know how the new pandas at the Singapore Zoo feel.

It was great to be back to the safety of the hotel before we met R2’s colleagues.  I told the story to some of the guests we entertained for dinner. They explained that often many Indians have next to no chance to see white foreigners. Many TV shows and movies are not accessible to many regions and often seeing a white woman on the street is a photo they want to show their friends to say they "met and spoke" to you.

The next time I go out, I will turn the tides and ask to take all of their photos. Should produce some interesting results.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Three Blind Mice...

"There's a rat in me kitchen what am I gonna do? There's a rat in me kitchen what am I gonna go? I'm gonna fix that rat that's what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna fix that rat." 

Quit bringing your rat family to see me
My apologies to UB40 but I swear if I see one more rat in Asia, running solo, in herd or gaggles, or whatever they gather in, I am going to go "Three Blind Mice" on their ass. I have seen rats from India, to Thailand, to Singapore, to Australia (well, technically, they were possum and OZ isn't Asia, but close enough). My latest venture with the pests was in Melaka, Malaysia with my sister Lori, and R2. It doesn't get any easier seeing these vermin running through the streets or dangerously close to where you are dining, no matter how often you see them.

We took Lori for a final trip in Asia before she went homeward bound because we wanted to jam in as many countries as we could. It was her first trip to Asia, and after all the bats, rodents and lizards we saw,  hopefully not her last.

We took a luxury coach to Melaka; the only way you can get to this UNESCO Heritage Site city. The term luxury was a mystery because it was a normal bus with your typical tourist that cracks open a Tiger Beer at 8:00 a.m.and continues to pound five before 11 a.m. Once we crossed the Malaysian border, we stopped for a bathroom break, to the ultra luxurious squat and dip toilets; Lori was not amused.

R2 sprung for superior rooms with huge beds, a monstrous pool to cool down from the August heat and a lounge where we relaxed, away from general population of history seeking tourists. So far, so good.

At the cemetery in Melaka
Melaka is a charming city, filled with forts, tombs, museums and bygone days. Let's be honest, we were there for the massages, food and a boat ride along the river. We also wanted to escape Singapore because it was National Day which means traffic, people and confusion at every corner. We had heard the military practising the fly-bys so often, I thought Singapore was under an air strike and we didn't get the memo.

The romance tuk tuk ride
One activity that I thought would be great for Lori was the manually driven tuk tuks, decorated in every imaginable way. The tuk-tuks are different than I have experienced as they are bicycles that chauffeur you around. We found a couple of men willing and eager to give us a ride to the river. Most of them want to give you the entire city tour.  Little did we know R2 and I got the honeymoon tuk tuk and Lori got the disco tuk tuk. It was all great fun, and the added history lessons we received from the driver was a bonus.

In Melaka, we didn't do anything we haven't done in any of the locales we have visited in Asia: we drifted on the river and pretended it was Amsterdam, we noshed in a bistro and pretended it was France, and we escaped the intense Malaysia heat at the busy pool and pretended it was Mexico. We people watched, we looked at historic Malay sites, we took our lives in our hands trying to cross the road and we fought the never-ending crowds along the street. Pretty much what we do in every place we visit. 

The Dragon all alone in the ghost town
On one sultry evening we took a stroll to find that Melaka is a ghost town unless it is a Friday night. No one told the sewer rats to stay home; I don't think they were interested in the ubiquitous karaoke. It wasn't bad enough I had to listen to R2 and Lori scream through not one, two, or three rats, there were four rats running near the gutter on a deserted street. I knew this trip was going to go from bad to worse if we saw more.

Often, if I didn't have any bad luck, I would not have any luck at all when it comes to the flying and grounded vermin and roaches. My worst fears were confirmed as we walked down another  creepy, darkened street the following night, on the hunt for a decent reflexology treatment. I saw the rat, the rat saw me and it was Mickey Mouse go-time. He went scurrying down the gutter towards Lori like a bat outta hell, but I kept my yap shut and my inner screams stifled. I was hoping they wouldn't see what I saw for fear of having to revive them both from a case of the Vapours. 

The famous river - where the rats band together
I was in the clear; the disgusting vermin made a beeline for the garbage heap and they were none the wiser.  Oh no, as with monkeys, if you see one, there are fourteen more surrounding you; same deal with the rats. All of the sudden, the tick-infested, nasty rat made an attempt down the fifty yard line, right past Lori, and between R2's longs legs."Game on, Rat," I thought. Lori's screams could be heard in Indonesia and R2 tried to kick that rat for a field goal, up the middle. The attempt, like the Saskatchewan Roughriders, was unsuccessful, but I imagine it felt good to try to punt him like a futbol.  So much for an enjoying a quiet foot massage with Lori and Arturo screaming, shouting and carrying on like school girls from the latest Ratcsapade.

We boogied back to the hotel and had a shower (not together) to rid ourselves of the rat image. An early night was probably the best after two nights of the cheeky buggers. 

The next day, we had a long ride back on a crowded bus to Singapore through two borders, a beer drinker and immigration officers from Dante's Inferno.  I just hoped none of the rats jumped in our luggage because getting into Singapore Customs is tough.