Thursday, March 10, 2011

Verkala Trip Details

I feel as though I’ve been gone from my usual life for some time – with the two trips to Madurai last week and the couple days in Verkala.  It feels good to be resuming my routine back in Tiruchuli, though I feel I have more to accomplish than I can get done as quickly as I’d like.  Taking a vacation usually makes me feel behind upon my return and this is no exception.

Before we left for Verkala on Monday evening we had an unexpected treat.  Monday morning we were invited to the wedding of Elavarasu’s sister-in-law in Kerioppati.  I probably should have taken the opportunity to wear my sari but was concerned that the delay preparing me at the office would get us there later than we needed.  As it was, we ended up missing the actual ceremony, which surprised Kitu who says she is used to ceremonies lasting several hours and we arrived there only about an hour later than the invitation had said.  The bride and groom were already stationed on the stage of the large hall having photos taken with all of the various visitors.  Guests were brought up in their family groups to present their gifts and to stand for their photos.  I felt the bride and groom were very patient through all of this – they had to bow often in their beautiful, but likely uncomfortable clothes and maintained a pleasant demeanor throughout the event.  This part of the event was definitely not for them but for their families and the guests.  After we spent some time visiting with those we knew from ODAM, Usha, Kitu and I went the second floor of the hall where they were serving the luncheon.  It was quite a feast with several dishes I hadn’t tried yet.  Everything was very tasty and they were feeding large numbers of people very efficiently – no mean feat.  It was fun to learn a bit more about the wedding customs in the area but wish we had seen the wedding ceremony.  I have to be honest that the entire gathering felt a great deal like other events I have attended in America with the Indian population there – a lot of women dressed in their best and everyone visiting and enjoying the company of their friends – so I actually felt very at home for the wedding.

Monday at the office the two kittens living in the back area finally began coming out into the ODAM yard.  I would estimate they are about six weeks old, old enough to be without their mother but only with care.  I haven’t yet seen their mother but believe she’s still around as they appear well cared for.  They were very skittish at first and I asked if someone would go buy them milk.  Pichay and Pothy have apparently been buying them milk since and Bagam, the young woman who keeps the office clean and serves tea, has been feeding the kittens since we left.  Coming back today, the kittens are already better at eating from the bowl without walking through it and are much more approachable, though one is definitely more curious and bold than the other.  I can tell it won’t be long before he is tamed as he has already let me touch him but the other may remain wild as he/she is so timid.  It makes me miss home less having some pet interaction – missing my cats has been tougher than I expected.

Monday evening Kitu and I were driven to Virudhanagar to catch the train to Verkala in the state of Kerala.  We had to sit in the station for a couple hours as the train was quite late and I was pretty exhausted by the time we finally boarded.  The trip over we had a first class compartment with just the two berths and it was pretty comfortable.  Unfortunately Kitu was fighting the cold I had a couple weeks ago and was having a lot of coughing fits when lying flat – didn’t disturb me but she didn’t get much sleep.  We woke about the time we hit Trivandrum, a much larger city close to Verkala, and then anxiously watched train stations since there was no announcement of stations or anything and we were a bit afraid we’d miss getting off at the correct stop.  It was almost an hour past Trivandrum so we were quite ready to get off when we arrived.  We negotiated an auto rickshaw like pros and asked the driver where a good hotel was.  He took us through a circuitous route when we neared the tourist area and we never could have negotiated it without such assistance.  He dropped us off at the Kerala Bamboo House, pretty much in the center of all activity.  The beach is below a cliff with several stairways connecting them and there is a walkway along the cliff that serves as the main thoroughfare for the tourist section.  There were very pleasant accommodations up and down the walkway and there were good selections of places to stay all along the way.  Since it is nearing the end of the season, places were anxious to fill vacancies and the Bamboo House offered us a very nice room for 1000 INR which normally goes for 1500.  I think the main selling point was the open air bathroom – there was no ceiling and you could take a hot shower looking up at the palm trees.  The grounds of the hotel were planted with beautiful gardens and each room and cottage had small verandas to enjoy the outdoors.  It was quiet and peaceful and the hotel also offered many of the ayervedic massages and therapies so I think they catered more to a quiet and meditative clientele.  It was a very good choice and we were both very grateful for the good recommendation.  Kate, Ramsey, and their friends had elected to stay on an extra day so were still there when we arrived and we went down to the beach to find them after we cleaned up and changed from the journey.  Unfortunately we hadn’t taken into account that we were going to the beach at the height of the noonday sun and it was truly scorching with high humidity – I felt like a wet washrag much of the time in Verkala but definitely started off on the wrong foot.  Neither Kitu nor I are big on beach activities, particularly those involving swimsuit exposure, so we realized pretty quickly that we needed to head back up to the main tourist walkway to check out the many restaurants and shops.  The tourists came from many areas, though we heard a great deal of German and I would guess they were the majority at this particular time of year, though the majority of restaurants boasting a German bakery made me believe there were often many foreigners from there.  I was a bit surprised at the number of people on the beach with very scanty coverage – afraid I’m not used to the European exposure and felt more comfortable on the sides of the beach frequented by the Indians to avoid seeing the skimpy outfits on so many old and very unfit individuals.  I don’t think I’m normally prudish but guess I can be when not used to such displays.  The dress on the upper cliff was a bit more conservative but the outfits were rather unusual and the shops were catering to the colorful, relatively cool clothing – though I wasn’t tempted to purchase any as it wouldn’t be appropriate in Tiruchuli and wasn’t something I would be likely to wear when I return to America.  I guess I would classify the style there as the international yuppie version of old hippie wear… hope that’s clear.  I guess the saddest part was that though there were many stores, all offered the same items so shopping really wasn’t as interesting as it might have been.  The other amusing part of the shopping experience involved the street vendors walking along the main thoroughfare – almost every item started at 450 rupees – like that was the only price of anything and everything offered.  It became rather amusing.  I somewhat enjoy bartering but believe I’m still paying more than necessary – but can’t feel bad about it when I realize how little I’m paying and that I doubt they make much – particularly late in the season as it is now with fewer tourists to approach.  I really enjoyed the interaction with one little salesperson – a ten year old girl with excellent English which she picked up from the tourists – and I believe she had other languages she had acquired in the same way as well.  She was quite a gifted salesperson and even knowing that she was monopolizing on her youth to make sales did not prevent me from enjoying shopping with her and buying a small necklace for my daughter – again the bargaining began at 450 rupees.  Kitu and I strongly encouraged her to be sure to take advantage of getting her education because she was so bright and when asked what she might want to be when she grows up, she replied “a policewoman” which I found interesting as it was probably the job with the most authority she interacted with.  I wish I had more that I wanted to buy (and better funding!) there as the interactions with shopkeepers and vendors were highlights to the time there as the tourists were generally not conversing outside their own groups.  We did have one rather odd British many who now lives in Los Angeles who approached us (mainly Kitu really) and was quite a character.  Kitu knowing Hindi made it possible for her to interact with almost everyone working there.  Interestingly most of the people catering to the needs of the tourists are not locals from Verkala but were from other parts of India and Nepal.  That rather disturbed me that the local jobs were being lost until we had a great conversation with a local man who runs a juice shop who told us that the main reason was that the Keralans, because they receive rather good educations and are generally more literate than those from other Indian areas, frequently take jobs in the middle east working in places like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, etc. making better money to send home and this opens the tourist market in Verkala to lesser trained individuals from outside Verkala.  I found the emigration/immigration pattern very interesting.  We had a nice evening in the local bar that overlooked the ocean attempting to watch the sunset (though the sunset was disappointing) and enjoying the quiet ambiance of the place.  We then met up with the other Tiruchuli volunteers for dinner at a restaurant that specialized in Italian food.  The menus in every restaurant catered to a wide variety of palates – serving Chinese, Thai, Indian, Mexican, Italian, German, American, and others (even Tibetan Momo). Though I wasn’t necessarily impressed that anything truly captured the essence of the foods I had, it was nice to have a change.  I had guacamole which was really just overcrushed avocados and tomatoes (really needed garlic and lime at least) but though it wasn’t the real thing, it was nice to get something close to what I’m used to for a change.  The lack of flavor, likely done to appeal to a variety of foreign tastes, made both Kitu and I appreciate the good food Jayama prepares for us.  We had a bit of a mixup on our return train ride home and ended up rescheduling to return to Madurai on a second class sleeper car, which was much more of an adventure than the ride there.  We shared an open “compartment” area which sleeps eight people on three tiered bunks and it was really a very effective setup to accommodate many travelers at once.  The train was not an express as the first was so it traveled very slowly but this was actually more convenient than leaving in the middle of the night (necessitating sitting around in the train station anyway) and we left at 7:00 p.m. arriving in Madurai about 6:30 a.m. the next morning.  The bunks weren’t quite as wide as the first class so it was a bit more cramped but was certainly not difficult to sleep on the return – though Kitu again fought her cold symptoms.  One of the highlights of the trip was a completely serendipitous moment – we hired the same auto rickshaw driver who had taken us to the train station to work out our tickets during the second morning to return and take us back to the station to catch the train.  On the way another rickshaw driver was in the street and was telling him something that obviously concerned a traffic issue of some sort which we didn’t really understand but as we went a different route, the driver stopped in an area where there were many auto rickshaws and motorcycles parked and told us he would wait for us and that if we just walked up a little ways perhaps we could see the elephant parade going into the temple there.  Well we walked about two blocks up to the crowd outside the temple just as the elephants began to come by – there were six elephants decorated for the parade and I was madly trying to get video and take photos at the same time (which doesn’t make for good quality of either) and it was really very exciting.  Five minutes later the parade is over and we headed back to the taxi to get to the station with plenty of time to spare – how convenient was that!  I hope to post the photos soon and maybe will get around to figuring out how to edit videos enough that I could post that as well.  I was very pleased when we returned to Madurai that I am already an old hand at getting to the larger bus station and we were able to catch a direct bus to Tiruchuli which left at 7:00 a.m. and we were back in our own little rooms by 8:30 – which would have been in time for breakfast but we’d already told Jayama we’d be out so we didn’t worry about that.  Kitu went immediately to bed and finally got some rest and I caught up with my laundry and finished the book I’d started over the weekend (The Toss of a Lemon – very good fiction about a family in Tamil Nadu from the turn of the century on) so somewhat continued my vacation as I didn’t feel rested enough to accomplish much in the office, though I did make some productive plans related to the project while chilling at home.  It felt good to get back in the saddle and get back to work on Friday and hope to accomplish some projects in the office tomorrow as well.  Kitu decided to accept an invitation to join Kate and Ramsey and the gang in Moonar (not sure how that’s spelled but I usually make phonetic attempts so apologize if I mangle too many place or people names) so I’m the only volunteer at ODAM for a couple days and intend to be productive while it’s quiet in the office.

It was a fun couple days but it felt good to get back to my own life.  All is well with my health for those who have expressed concern.  I’m back wearing actual shoes as my feet aren’t swollen or getting blisters as they were for a while – which certainly made traveling easier.  The little colorful footies with flipflops were amusing to everyone and managed to get me through the healing process needed but they were not particularly easy to walk in and I’m grateful to feel more comfortable and healthy again.

Take care.

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