Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Road Again...

The first order of business if you want to take a train ride in India is to purchase a ticket.  The government (who owns the railways) has a convenient website for making your choices and purchasing your ticket.  Convenient if you are a holder of an Indian credit card, because otherwise, forget it.  Our friends in Bangalore kindly offered to help us book our tickets, which was wonderful both because it saved us a hot mess at the train station, and because it helped us walk through the alphabet soup of choices of where you can sit and whether or not you can lie down, travel in AC, etc.  There is CC AC (Chair car air conditioning), etc, etc.  They have a nifty SMS system of notification and paperless ticketing, so I was getting pretty upscale vibe about the operation. 
We were dropped off at the station by the taxi, and therein lie our first challenge, because usually our driver takes us, and he knows we are ignorant in the ways of Indian travel, and so hustles us to the place to see which platform we are leaving from, then navigates the crowd and carries a bag or two up and down some steep stairs,  (I usually need one bag just for teaching materials, heavy materials) then searches for our exact car (another set of letters hidden in the secret code on your ticket) and deposits us directly in front of the car.  Added to that is trying to step gingerly over and around the scores of people who are in various stages of repose at the entrance of the train station. Whew!
We were on our own this time, and tried to imitate our driver and look confident as well.  We got as far as the correct platform (sweaty after heaving the bags up and down the stairs) then we deciphered the car we were looking for.  We realized we had no idea which direction to walk, so one of us held the bags and the other served as a scout, first going all the way to the end of the train looking for the correct letter combination, then after no success retreating and walking almost all the way to the other end.  We’re not sure if there is a system to the order of the letters, but we couldn’t see a pattern.  Fortunately we had enough time for the inefficient system of trying both directions, because these trains are long.
Once we found our seats, we prayed the AC would be turned on soon, because all the windows were closed, the electricity was not yet on, and I was leaving a small pool of sweat anywhere I touched the vinyl seat.  It wasn’t long before we were on our way, and S had no trouble utilizing the sleep accommodations.  I usually can get lots of work done because there is a live electrical outlet in each of the cabins.  It’  That happened again, and what was supposed to be a 5-hour ride turned into a 9-hour marathon quite quickly. 

s one of the best things about train trav
el, for me. We were rolling along when suddenly we stopped, where we sat for over an hour.

However, we survived, got off the train, and once more schlep the bags up and down platforms before we have escaped with our possessions.  The next challenge involved finding our hotel’s car, and then understanding what in the world he was saying to us, as we tried to connect with him for the better part of another hour.  He kept saying he was in the parking, but when he finally appeared he was driving in the front entrance, so I’m not sure whose parking he was utilizing, but it definitely wasn’t the train station’s. Our Bangalore friends assured us that train ride was quit  It makes the mode even more inviting. Last night we took another voyage via train and we almost missed our stop, because someone was sleeping (not me) and I was too engrossed in my work (watching Glee reruns) to notice the time.  Good fortune smiled on us because an employee dashed into our cabin to make up the beds for the evening riders and he told us we had 2 minutes until Bangalore.  At first I thought it was an Indian two minutes, but in fact we were stopping.  We were thankful he stopped by, but there isn’t usually any announcement of where the train is stopping.  The train ride in India is meant for those who can learn the system and navigate it on their own.  Check out the numbers and languages on the side of our car to see what I mean.  Our ticket read:  C and S Greenleaf (we knew that part), then PNR 4714613528, Trn: 16592 Frm MYS to SBC  Cls-1A, P1-HA1,5 P2-HA1,6.  See if you can find the clues on the side of the car.  Oh, they also post a hard copy of the reservations on the side of the car where you belong, so they aren’t totally heartless.  However, you have to find the car first, which proved a challenge for us first-time-on-our-own passengers.

e atypical, but that trip made flying look attractive, and that is saying a lot. Oh, I forgot to mention the biggest perk of taking the train in India…the ticket is dirt cheap.

Namdroling Monastery

This Tibetan monastery is of the Nyngma Sect.  These are the people who enjoy lots of statutes, ornate paintings, and deities galore.  Aka, the Catholics of the Buddhist world. For some unknown reason, there is a large settlement of this community about 1.5 hours outside of Mysore.  One monk answered this query by saying, some like it cold so they can go to Dharmasala, and those who like it hot can come to Mysore.  Whatever!
It was almost sensory overload, because there was gorgeous architecture and painting everywhere you looked.  But then the monks began their chanting, accompanied by horns, cymbals, conches, and a huge drum, and then things really started cooking.  We saw a couple of groups of monks doing the rounds of the various buildings in the compound, singing on their way, then chanting a little, then prostrating themselves in unison while chanting, then dusting off, and on to the next venue.  The grounds were beautifully landscaped and very peaceful, and each building was a little jewel box to be opened and explored.  Enjoy the pictures here:

Mysore Palace

This palace was quite impressive, but I am getting a bit jaded by the abundance of such palaces, durbars, temples, and general fancified buildings in India.
Originally this was the digs of the Wodeyar Kings, rulers of the current state of Karnnatika.  They liked to show people just how much money they had.  This palace was rebuilt in the late 19th century after a fire destroyed the original.  The architect was British, and the style is a combination of Indian, Hindu, Mughal and European late Victorian style.  There is a huge parade/show grounds, and the usual DURBAR in the center of the building, where the king would receive lucky people.
See how many styles you can find in the pictures here:

Bird Sanctuary near Mysore (Ranganna Tittu)

This sanctuary is a nesting and breeding center for all kinds of birds, from herons, egrets, painted and open billed storks, to the beautiful white ibis. We started the day like amateurs, forgetting our binoculars, but soon hit our stride when we popped for the extra rupees to take an incredible 30 minute boat ride that had us within a couple of feet of several birds, their nests, and the occasional crocodile.  Sometimes the proximity was a little freaky, but mostly it was an incredible sight.  The birds weren’t spooked by either the boat or the white people inside, so I could click to my heart’s content.  If anyone knows the name of the beautiful golden/bronze heron, I’d love to know.  If it didn’t have a hunchback, it would have won best of show yesterday.  Enjoy some fabulous feathered photos (said aloud it is still alliteration) here:
Sneak Preview of FLICKR Collection

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Local Flavor: Protests, Posies, and Cotton Exposition

Bougainvillea on Arch in Park
I've been back in Trivandrum for exactly 4 days and we're taking off tomorrow for another 2 week swing, this time in the south of India.  While here, I visited a cotton exhibition at the bottom of our hill, and I feel like I have really arrived in India, because even without the signs announcing which state each booth is from, I can tell the ikats of Orissa from the block prints of Rajasthan, the silks of Varanasi from the stitching of West Bengal.  Second, there was yet another protest, this time from the Banker's Union.  This state, Kerala, is famous for its communist leanings, and also for its overuse of the protest.  I found the placards these bankers were carrying quite interesting, because all of them could have been carried by someone in the United States, save the one about the 5-day workweek.  We don't have the saying of "banker's hours" for nothing.  Finally, a walk through our park signaled that spring/summer is officially here, with the bougainvillea and other trees in full blossom. There is lots of humidity to help the blossoms along, and it promises to increase until the monsoon arrives.  I checked to see exactly when we could expect some relief, and the monsoon arrived on June 2 last year.  It's going to be a muggy, hot spring/summer.  I guess we'll just have to spend more time at the beach.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Hiking the Himalayas

Yes, I know it's hard to believe I'm hiking anywhere, let alone beside the big Kahuna of mountain ranges.  We (2 friends and I) flew to Pokhra, in Nepal, to do some hiking along the ridge that faces the majestic Himalayas.  We were gifted an absolutely perfect weather day, and began our day at 5:30 a.m.  We got about 2/3 of the way up the ridge where we were to see the sunrise over the mountains, when we came to an abrupt halt.  There was a huge traffic mess, no one was moving, so we quickly decided to alight on foot, much to the horror of our non-English speaking driver.  We got most of the way up before we stopped at a great vantage point to enjoy the view.  Here is the link to pictures of this impromptu hike and the one we took mid-morning:
After we came back for breakfast, we headed off for a hike up to the World Peace Pagoda constructed by Japanese Buddhist Monks.  We had beautiful weather, beautiful views, and by the end of the 3+ hour hike, I had some very tired feet and creaky knees.  However, the views were worth the pain.  Enjoy the scenery!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Nepal Travels

I've been on the road for work (and a little sight seeing) for about 10 days.  Tomorrow we go to Pokhra, 2nd largest city in Nepal, for a quick 1.5-

day look around.  It's famous for great views of the highest peaks of the Himalayas, but it's been cloudy or rainy here for 7 days and so far, I could be living in Iowa for all I can see.  Here are 3 places I've been, including Hyderabad, in India, before we left for a conference and meeting in Kathmandu.  The blue title  at the beginning of each short description is a link to photos on FLICKR.

Hyderabad:  Hyderabad is famous for its large Muslim population, its bangles, its attar [perfume without alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam], and I’m not sure what else.  The one free day I had we went to Char Minar, the outdoor bazaar, and these few photos are from there. 

The Golden Temple, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal:
This 3 story golden pagoda of Shakyamuni (Lord Buddha) was built in the 13th century by King Bhaskar Verma.  On the walls are paintings depicting a complete life history of Buddha.  There are large prayer wheels, and places for prayer situated around the courtyard, with people in outside alcoves preparing their puja (offerings) and others reciting prayers.  Toward the end of these photos are some photos of the incredible Durbar Square in Patan, an area of Kathmandu.  Patan was once the capital of a powerful independent kingdom, and is the oldest city in the Kathmandu Valley. These buildings are exquisite examples of Newari architecture from the 18th century, with a royal palace along one side and assorted temples grouped in the remaining public space.

Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal:  The great white stupa at Boudha is one of the world’s largest stupas.  It is also the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet.  Since 1959 Boudha has been the focus for Tibetan exiles in Nepal, but it has been a sacred site on the Kathmandu-Tibet trade route for centuries.