Saturday, November 29, 2008

Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela
Staying in the mountain region of Kerela, Luca and I traveled by bus to Kumily, which is just outside of Periyar Tiger Reserve. I had been continuing my meditation practice (twice a day for an hour) and on the 5-hour bus ride had the feeling of most intense happiness and calm (very nice!). Sitting for an hour at a time is getting much easier as well. We were greeted by a super nice Muslim guy named Abbas, who our hotel in Munnar had called ahead about us. Abbas drove his own autorickshaw and was everywhere in town. We'd turn around and he'd be there - it was eery. He drove us to his new homestay, which was rustic, friendly, and at the edge of the jungle. The hot water heater was broken though, so you had to heat water up on the stove to take a hot bucket shower.

Periyar Tiger Reserve - KerelaPeriyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela
Periyar Tiger Reserve - KerelaPeriyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela

Periyar comprises an enormous protected area dedicated to stabilizing the remaining tiger population in the area. At the center a large dam creates a man-made lake, tendrils of which snake throughout the reserve. The latest census puts the number of tigers at 50, so the odds of seeing one is very small. Nevertheless there are tons of other animals in the Reserve to see, so Luca and I booked a 2 day, overnight camping trek.

Knee Socks - Periyar Tiger Reserve - KerelaLeeches! Periyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela

It was out-and-out pouring when we booked the tickets, and I was a little skeptical. I had a light rainjacket, but that was it. It looked like I should be wearing a dry-suit or something. Luckily the next day, we had only moderate rain, with the more heavy showers happening at night when we were safe in our tents. As we started the trek, they gave us each knee socks, which I had never seen before but they go over your normal socks, inside your shoe and then up your calf. "Great!" I thought, "they are thinking of my dryness." But then they started pouring brown powder on them and it turns out their purpose is to protect us from the numerous leeches that infest parts of the forest floor. Leeches! They make all of the giant spiders, cockroaches, man-eating mosquitoes, snakes and rats seem tame and cute in comparison. Looking like ravenous little worms, they were soon crawling all over my poor Echo walking shoes, which had no idea what they were in for on this trip.

Periyar Tiger Reserve - KerelaPeriyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela

The Periyar program employs local village people who used to earn money poaching tigers or stripping bark from rare trees. Now they lead ecotourism expeditions into the same forest, and they are bad-ass! We had 5 people with us during our trek, complete with one expert tracker who was constantly looking at broken branches and sniffing droppings, and a bear of a man with a rifle who was our "elephant enforcer".
Periyar Tiger Reserve - KerelaPeriyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela
Fresh Tiger Tracks! Periyar Tiger Reserve - KerelaPeriyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela

I seem to be toughening up as a result of this trip. There I was, in the rain, with a case of food poisoning from something I ate the night before, throwing up on the trail, and still enjoying myself quite a bit. We saw a ton of wildlife, including wild boar (every time our guide would yell that out all I could think of was that Duran Duran song "Wild Boys"), bison, black monkeys, Sambar deer, fruit bats, giant squirrels (my favorite), kingfisher, cranes, and something called a hawk eagle, which looks like a smaller bald eagle (or a white dove body with huge brown wings).

Elephants! Periyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela

The highlight, though, was finding some wild elephants the morning we were returning from camp. Our tracker heard some elephant trumpeting in the distance and led us out through the brush on an exciting hour and a half hunt before breakfast. Alas, we never caught up with the beasts, though we did find fresh elephant and tiger tracks (!). He was visibly upset when we came back to camp only to find out that a group of elephants had just walked by on an opposite bank! Luckily he redeemed himself on the way back and we found them, about 7 animals in all, including a little baby elephant and a huge bull. Our gunman made us keep our distance, and we were told stories of other guides getting kicked to death by elephants as tourists got too close. Everybody went bonkers with their cameras, of course. This Polish girl had a Nikon digital SLR, which was the envy of everyone on the trip (you really notice the limits of the point and shoot cameras when you try to zoom in and catch wildlife). It always cracked me up when she would get really worked up about a shot because she would go into continuous shooting mode (kshhhttk kshhhttk kshhhttk), which sounded so serious and was an audible cue to her level of excitement (reminded me of that Duran Duran video, "Girls on Film"). There was a lot of kshhhttk kshhhttk kshhhttk with the elephants.

Periyar Tiger Reserve - KerelaLuca - Periyar Tiger Reserve - Kerela

Luca and I returned to town, completely soaked, tired, and satisfied. Being a little cold and wet, we kinda snuck out of Abbas' place while Abbas was not around (paid up of course), and sought out another guest house that had warm water. Tourism is down right now due to the continued bombings (and I'm sure will fall off a cliff after Mumbai), so we were able to negotiate down these very nice rooms for almost 1/2 off. For the rest of our time in Kumily, whenever I heard an autorickshaw behind us, I expected to turn around see Abbas bearing down on us, but somehow, he disappeared. The next morning, Luca and I took a bus to Kottayam, where we went our separate ways, he going to Varkala and myself to Kochi.

Thinking of all those who lost loved ones in Mumbai...what a tragedy.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Munnar - KerelaTea Plantation - Munnar - KerelaMunnar - KerelaMunnar - Kerela
I wanted to continue to avoid bigger towns and do something mellow after the ashram, so I headed to the hill station of Munnar, up in the mountains in Kerela. Munnar is tea growing country - tea plants cover every available piece of land. Tea plants looking like nothing more than a well-tended hedge in the shape of a human brain. One of the prettiest Indian towns I've been to, Munnar is mainly an Indian tourist destination, though foreign tourism is picking up. The British cultivated the tea trade here in the late 1800's, and it was gradually brought under Indian ownership after Independence and now, in good Kerelan fashion, is owned mostly by the workers (they're a little bit Communist down here). The other thing I love about Munnar is that they have great homemade chocolate here - the chocolate is so bad in most parts of India.
My palatial hotel - Munnar - KerelaMy palatial hotel - Munnar - Kerela
I arrived into town late at night with what I thought was a reservation at this cute home stay called Zina Lodge. When I got there, this strange old Indian man kind of chewed me out for not calling again when I got to town, and then revealed that he had overbooked the rooms and that I might have to sleep on the living room floor (or go to his brother's lodge). If he hadn't been so cranky and annoying this probably would have been fine but as it was I wanted to get away from him as soon as possible. It was pretty funny because he is written up in all the guidebooks as a local treasure, and he did make me a cup of tea and give me some biscuits. But everything about the man was not friendly underneath and I couldn't wait to leave. So I called up my rickshaw driver who had conveniently given me his cell phone #, and had him take me to the next hotel that looked good, which turned out to be a fairly expensive splurge called the Hillview. This is where Indian couples go for their honeymoon, I think, and it's nice with lots of dark carved wood and enormous rooms. It reminded me (like so many things) of the hotel in "The Shining". I stayed for two nights and then moved to the cheaper and friendlier Green View hotel, which was all about trekking and backpackers like myself.
Munnar - KerelaMunnar - KerelaMunnar - KerelaMunnar - Kerela
There's not a ton to do here other than learn about tea and go trekking. Luckily, the trekking is fantastic, with amazing views from about 5 peaks in the area. I went up with a group of a couple other travellers, and we had sketchy weather - not raining yet, but it looked like it might be going in that direction. We had breakfast up above the clouds and watched them pour over the mountains like a river. Our guide kept on checking the weather carefully and calling his cohorts on his cell phone. Finally, he turned us around and we made it off the mountain and got to our shelter just as it started to pour hard. Which was lucky for me because for some reason I forgot my raincoat that day...I met a super nice Italian guy named Luka on the trek and we ended up hanging out and then travelling together to Periyar Tiger Reserve.

I'm fine (not in Mumbai)

I'm down south in Kochi, still in Kerela. Everyone is glued to their TVs here watching the news about the blasts and hostages - truly awful.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Kerelan Backwaters and Amma's Ashram

Backwaters - KerelaBackwaters - KerelaOn the backwater ferry - KerelaBackwaters - KerelaBackwaters - KerelaBackwaters - KerelaVirginie - KerelaCarlos - Kerela
A group of us made friends and decided to travel together to the Amma Ashram to hopefully get one of the famous hugs from Kerela's resident saint. If you haven't heard of Amma (, she is really remarkable. Her hugs are supposed to fill you with positive energy and be healing, and she also has a huge charitable organization that does a lot to help India's poor. For example, she was able to mobilize over $22 million to help the tsunami victims in India, and has built over 10,000 houses around India to shelter the homeless. The trip to the ashram was through the Kerelan backwaters, which is a lovely journey through inland water channels. It reminded me of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, though that was a little more wild (and a bit like Hong Kong harbor, Mark, they had... HOUSEBOAT! HOUSEBOAT!).

Amma's Ashram - KerelaAmma's Ashram - Kerela
View from ashram room - KerelaFrom bridge by ashram - Kerela
The ashram itself is very large (around 3,000 people are staying there at any one time and every day it looks like maybe 50 people were arriving). And this was the off season - we got the dates wrong and Amma was not there right now (she's off hugging in Europe). There is a nice Hindu temple in the middle, but many of the buildings look like public housing apartments. When Amma is in residence, there are many more people there and tons of classes and things to do (yoga, massage, aryuvedic healing, music lessons). But many things shut down when she is away and the crowds are not there. I found the people that lived and worked there to be clearheaded, lovely people, who were quite helpful. Many of the guests though had a funky energy - very sad people coming to have Amma save them. From everyone I've talked to, including Gina, Amma is the real deal - someone with almost boundless love for humanity, but you have to wade through many of her followers to reach this love. She is supposed to be back on Dec. 8th and I may stop by and get in the hug line if it works in my schedule.

I was still in the mood for something mellow and quiet after my meditation retreat, so I cut the ashram visit short and headed up to Munnar, which is at the center of Kerela's tea plantation industry up in the mountains. It's beautiful and green up here, and also cooler. Just arrived last night so I'm off to explore the area now...

Survived meditation, moving on!

Vipassana Retreat - Kerela
Wow - the 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat was very tough but I got a lot out of it. We meditated for 10 hours a day and for 3 of the 1-hour sessions had to remain perfectly still the entire time. That is tougher than it sounds and involves a lot of pain. I had some kind of old knee injury that would start to spasm after 35 minutes, so a big part of the retreat was learning to deal with that. Which was cool - the technique teaches you to not react to pain (nor to overly crave pleasant sensations), and once you get the hang of it, you realize that most of the pain that you feel is your own reaction to the initial sensation. You start to think, "I will not multiply my suffering", which is pretty effective. Vipassana itself involves a deep investigation of the sensations of your body, and your reactions to them, and I found it useful. At the end of the retreat I felt light and happy - I plan to continue to practice it.

The location was quite beautiful and peaceful, in the middle of the Kerelan jungle, and we looked out onto a rice plantation and coconut grove with mellow grazing cows. Lots of birds, huge snakes, mongooses (which look like sleek, cute squirrels), turtles, frogs, armies of ants and enormous spiders. They tell us that animals don't disturb meditators because we don't give out panic reactions, which was tested when we found (toward the end of the session) a wasps nest in my neighbors bunk. They didn't seem to be bothered by us at all so we left them alone.
Vipassana Retreat - KerelaTom - KerelaVipassana Retreat - Kerela

Many people at the retreat were on the verge of leaving at some point in the middle of the session, but only one did. We were all glad to have stayed. Not least because on the 10th day you could start to talk to each other, and it was interesting to find out what people were like after you spent so long imagining their personalities from their appearance.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Downtime in Kerela

Varkala, KerelaVarkala, Kerela
Varkala, KerelaVarkala, Kerela

After a few months on the road, I needed a little break, so I headed down south for a week of R & R in Kerela. Flew down from Delhi (via Bangalore - nice new airport) and suddenly in the space of a few hours I was at the tip of the subcontinent. I immediately took a tuk-tuk to my little beach paradise, so I can't say I've seen much of Kerela. But from what I have seen, it appears much better off and mellower than up north. I rented a scooter and drove around some nearby neighborhoods and beaches (my first time driving one, which was exciting when I had to go to town to get gas). Many people seem to have decent-sized houses out in the jungle. It's not like people are rich here, but it seems more stable and less desperate here.

Noussad - Varkala, KerelaJavier and Ralph - Varkala, Kerela
Matthew - Varkala, KerelaBill and Lindsey - Varkala, Kerela

The beach town I'm staying at, Varkala, is supposed to be one of the less busy/touristy places but it basically consists of a cliff-top path full of restaurants and tourist shops, with a nice, smallish beach below. So I was pretty much in tourist-land the entire time I was here. It's one of the more expensive places I've stayed as far as food costs, but mostly because you can get fresh seafood here so you end up paying $4 for a meal instead of $1.50. Not that I'm complaining - it was a perfect place to unwind and relax. The Indian Ocean is warm, but super rough, and the riptide is very strong. You have to stay at the south end of the beach and a lifeguard will lay into you if you drift too far north. One of the folks I was hanging out with, Bill, got pounded by a wave and it looked like he'd been in a fight or something. I met some great people (locals and tourists) and ended up hanging out with them most of the time I was here.

The big draw at night here is the "Funky Art Cafe", which is a decent restaurant that has some live entertainment each night. One night there might be good classical Indian musicians, and the next might be 6 year olds dancing to Bollywood music (I wish I had my camera for that!). The power goes out every night at 8:30 for a half hour, which tends to put a damper on the festivities.

Varkala, KerelaVarkala, Kerela
Varkala, KerelaVarkala, Kerela

North of Varkala are miles of undeveloped beach, lots of canals and saltwater inlets, and tons of fisherman. A couple friends and I walked up towards there and helped the fisherman pull in their nets one day (they invited us to come out fishing at 6am the next morning but we passed). Once you get out of the developed area it's stunning here.

I did a lot of reading here, sitting in cafes sipping mint lemon tea and chatting with the locals. Read "How to See Yourself as You Really Are" by the Dalai Lama, and also "Hot, Flat and Crowded" by Thomas Friedman (the guy who wrote "The World is Flat"). Both were great but I can't recommend the second one enough - it very clearly lays out the enormous challenges we as a world face in the next 40 years (mostly the growth of people around the world that are starting to consume at the rate that Americans do, but also political instability, global warming, and ecological devastation) and how they mostly boil down to the need to move our energy system over to being sustainable and non-fossil fuel-based. It was inspiring to me as I start to think about what I want to do next...

Today I'm off to a 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat here in Kerela. No talking, no exercise, no reading! Wish me luck!