Posts Tagged ‘travel’

A thin layer of sweat sheathed my skin, keeping my body perpetually moist. It wasn’t sunny under the thick canopy of creeping vines and jungle trees, but the air was hot and thick, constipated with the monsoon rains that still haven’t come. Much of the forest floor was patched with black spots where guides had set fires so that the crumpling underbrush would burn in small controlled flames instead of one raging wildfire. Ash and spider webs clung to my arm hairs. But despite the smell of burning grass that hung on the air, much of the jungle was still green and thriving. And so were its creatures.

It was just a jungle walk- one of those ‘maybe you’ll see animals, maybe you won’t’ type of things. I was walking casually down a soft sanded Jeep path when my guide made a noise to get our attention. I turned to see him crouched down on his haunches, leaning on his walking stick, and staring between the tree trunks off of the left side of the path.

He looked up at us and whispered, “Rhino.” Then he waved for us to walk backwards quietly and peer through the trees. Tension pulled tightly on the heavy air. Sunscreened hands gripped their SLR cameras, but no one dared to take a picture. At the beginning of the walk, the guide had told us what to do just in case we encountered any aggressive wild creatures. The trick for rhinos is to climb up a tree. They can’t see up.

Rhinos! Photo taken from the safety of an elephant's back

I couldn’t see anything at first. The rhinoceros’s grey hide blended in with the brown trunks and underbrush. As soon as it moved though, it was unmistakable. It walked a few steps backward and then turned toward us. For a heartbeat I stared at the two black eyes and small horned head that crowned the Hummer-sized beast. It took a step toward us, and the guide turned, his index finger to his lips, and motioned for us to go back. The French tourists in our group ran back the way we’d come. I looked around to check the climability of the nearest trees while slowly stepping backward.

I can’t describe what it was like to see such a huge beast in its native habitat. It’s the type of thing that needs to be felt in order to be understood. During an elephant ride later that day, I saw five more rhinos and spotted deer and non-spotted deer and wild boar. Even though I grew up near the woods in Pennsylvania, I’ve never seen so much wildlife in one place before.

The rhinos here were nearly hunted to extinction, but the Nepali government stepped in and created strict rules and strong fines that now protect all of Chitwan’s wildlife. The park is pristine, especially in comparison to the Keralan backwaters- another biological treasure, but one that isn’t protected by government regulation. It would be naïve of me to say that we need to be eternally conscious of the wellbeing of wild animals and precious natural places so that people can always have the chance to enjoy them. Maybe this is a reason for preservation of our natural resources, but so often the argument gets left at that. Even people who will never trek in a jungle are connected to that jungle’s resources. We can’t even begin to imagine the vast interconnectedness of all living things (although science can certainly begin to sketch a vague picture). A single blog post can hardly serve a reasonable explanation. Appreciation of living things and wild animals is a reason to demand their protection, but don’t stop at that- keep thinking about it.

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A ferry in the backwaters

A ferry in the backwaters

I came here from Allepey, a typical south Indian town that reaches to the edges of the Keralan backwaters, a maze of canals with rice paddy gold and green grass borders. Houses line the waterways as they would on suburban streets, but instead of cars in driveways, there are small coffee colored canoes tied to hunchbacked coconut trees.

A palmthatch roof shaded the reed mat and ruby pillows that graced the center of a dirty wooden canoe, just a hand narrower than my arm span and long enough to hold two lounging tourists and a single rower who sat in the sun at the back.  His name was Pushparajan and he’d lived in the backwaters his entire life. Fishermen and ladies washing their clothes in the river yelled greetings to him in Malayalam as we floated past.

Lazing against my cushion while Pushparajan paddled, I wondered if this would be the closest I would ever come to feeling like royalty. Armadas of motorized luxury houseboats, complete with brass railings, man-sized windows, and lacquered sun decks, gurgled past us. There was certainly plenty of regality to be found on the backwaters. But there were moments when I could have sworn that I was on a street, the canal was so congested. Horns blared and the air conditioned four-bedroom houseboats pushed our little canoe into the green growth that hid along the sides of the canal

In this boat-swamped area, it looked like we were canoeing along the edge of a giant soap bubble.  Turning around I asked Pushparajan about the water.  He frowned and put his hand to his ear. I pointed down at the water and asked again.

“Motor oil,” he said, waving his hand  “but no problem.”

I tried to ask him again about it later, but the language barrier rose up like an iron fence that was inches too high to climb and I got the impression that he didn’t want to worry me.  So I let it go.

A head emerged from the water in front of us, and then a torso.  At first I thought the woman was bathing, as many of the people who live here do.

“Fishing for oysters,” Pushparajan said. And the woman opened up both palms to study her coal black catch of shellfish. Unsatisfied, she took a deep breath, grabbed onto the bamboo pole that jutted out of the water like a flagpost without its pennant, and dove back down again.

Then Pushparajan took me behind the main waterways to where his home was, where there were no road signs or huge houseboats or noisy ferries.  And no oil-slicked water.  Here the air stood still so that time moved with the pace of the imperceptible river current, and you could almost hear the cashew leaves falling onto the water. The people of the backwaters live with the river, as a shepherd lives with grassy hills or the Iroquios lived with their forests of Oak and Hemlock.  Because of this, even though these Keralans are removed from the chaos of the wider canals, they live among a different sort of danger.

A thin green layer of vegetation blanketed the canal. With no motorboats to sweep the growth to the sides, there were parts where I couldn’t see any water at all.  My rudimentary knowledge of ecosystem science warned me that this was not a good sign.  Pushparajan led me into the rice paddies behind his house, and told me about the “little bottle of poison” that they use to make sure that the rice grows.

“Not a problem,” he said.  And no matter how I asked him, he assured me that this was the case.

We went back to the canoe.  By this point I’d left my shaded cushion to move into the sun, where there was an extra paddle under the front seat.  It didn’t take long for lounging to get old. Paddling together, we went back to the main waterway, past rice paddies that were golden and ready for the cutting machines to harvest their grains, past the ostentatious houseboats and the people sitting out on their ostentatious houseboat verandas, through the rainbow oil water and back to Alleppey.

And now I’m at Periyar, the wildlife sanctuary without any wild animals, the home of the living plants and trees that are the source of so many things that we use every day; cocoa trees, vanilla vines, cinnamon trees. Today I had fresh, homemade chocolate, made from a cocoa tree that grows in the chocolate maker’s back yard. One more day here to see a tea plantation, and next is Ama’s ashram in Amritapuri, to continue the search for the answers of community living.

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Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala

Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala



At first glance they look like trebuchets, slingshots the size of a house that were used before the days of gunpowder to launch boulders over medieval city walls. Hardly meant for war, the Chinese fishing nets stock the wooden stalls that hug Cochin’s concrete walkway along the Arabian Sea. Fishermen here have relied on the large wooden levers to bring in fish, and their source of livelihood, for hundreds of years.

When it’s time to raise the nets and bring in a catch, four men each grab onto a vertically hanging rope and wrench them down toward the ground, their arms moving as fast as a sprinter’s legs. Once the net is up, one of the men runs along the trebuchet, past the stony fringe where land meets sea, and dips a hand net into the bigger one. He keeps his arm steady against the eight or ten hand-sized dancing fish.
After reading so many news stories about the oceans’ fish population rapidly depleting, I had to ask one of the vendors if he noticed less fish coming in. Panjeer, whose display sported the small silver fish and the pink ones with eyes the size of peacoat buttons, told me that he caught the large fish out at sea, from a canoe-like fishing boat. Only the smaller fish came from the nets on the shore. I asked Panjeer whether or not he was catching less fish than usual, and he nodded as if he’d been asked the question many times before.
His explanation was not that commercial fishing vessels were gobbling up too many fish for them to repopulate themselves. He said that there were less fish after the Tsunami of 2005. It didn’t actually hit the western coast of India, he said, but Cochin was still affected. I was about to mention that I’d read over fishing was the reason that fish supplies are dropping, but instead I thanked him and moved along.
Maybe every story has many truths. Panjeer’s truth is that the Tsunami is to blame for the fish dying out. Another truth is that bad commercial fishing practices are wrecking an important source of food for millions of people. It could be that both are true. Or it could be that Panjeer is simply an uneducated fisherman who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. My instinct is to put more faith in the man who has been fishing for his entire life, who is using a technique that has been used for years. And after all, so long as Panjeer holds his truth to be a fact, then so it is. We have a tendency to find scapegoats for all of our problems–bad corporations are to blame for killing off our piscine food source. But what if it’s not that simple? To complicate things further, what if it is that simple and commercialized fishing is the real reason that Panjeer has less fish to sell?  When not only a tradition that spans generations, but also a truly sustainable way of fishing (the boats they use aren’t even motorized) is at stake, who is it up to to tell Panjeer that maybe his truth is the one that needs to be questioned? 

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Preface: I’m going to put my tendency toward hyperbole on hiatus until further notice. I’m going just going to write the following exactly as it happened.

There weren’t many tourists in Jog Falls. With it being one of the ‘must see’ places in my Rough Guide book, I was surprised to find that there were only two other foreigners checked into the local youth hostle. I arrived just as the sky was growing dark, and spent the night talking with the two men from Israel.

Amir and his friend came through the mountains to Jog Falls on a black Royal Ensfield Bullet with a pouncing tiger insignia on the side of it. The tiger was fitting for the old bike; it growled every time Amir started it, and sputtered sometimes when he switched the gears. His friend had to go back to Gokarna to meet people, but Amir stayed and we spent the day riding around on the Bullet.

We were driving along this random country road. Every so often a house and farm would break the line of palm trees on both sides of the pavement. Cows were grazing in a small clearing ahead of us, behind a fence with an opening to the road. This is nothing spectacular—there are cows everywhere in India. But as we passed these cows I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. When I twisted my neck back to see what it was, there was a black bull the size of an SUV with its head to the ground and its hooves pounding after us.

“Amir, go faster!”

An image of the bull head-butting the back of the bike and then trampling the both of us flashed through my mind. The beast drew nearer.

“Amir!” I slapped his back. All of the muscles in my body tensed up. “The bull—it’s chasing us.”

“What?” He was still clueless.

“GO FASTER. Look in your mirror!”

“Shit.” The engine revved and we picked up speed, but the bull was still behind us. The bike gurgled and I was sure that fate would decide for this to be the time for the engine to go out.

But it didn’t. Later Amir said that he’d been going about 50k. However fast he went, it was enough to get us around a bend and out of sight of the beast. Then the road ended. We’d found the dam that had been build upstream of the falls, and there was a gate across the road. We’d lost the bull by this point, but it couldn’t have been far behind us. I watched the bend in the road, waiting for it to come running down. I was ready to hop the fence, but the bull never came.

Two guards came out of a small building near the gate and we chatted with them for a while. We weren’t allowed to go and see the dam because security had been heightened after the Mumbai attacks. But after we said goodbye, Amir took a dirt road to the side of the gate and we saw the dam anyway. When we passed the guards on the way back, they didn’t seem to care.

I wasn’t worried about getting yelled at by some guards. The only way out was the same way that we came in. Amir didn’t seem nervous at all, but maybe that was for my sake. As we drove back up the road to where the bull had to be waiting, an Indian woman waved us down and stopped us. Her face was creased with wrinkles, and she was only slightly taller than the young boy that was with her. She started speaking something in Malayam, and although I couldn’t understand a word of it, I knew what she was saying. I smiled, put my two index fingers up to my temples and pointed down the road. She and the boy nodded.

Her eyebrows were drawn together, deepening the worry lines on her forehead. She pressed her lips and handed me what I had thought was a walking stick. My smile disappeared. I saw that one end of the thick stick had been sharpened into a point. She was handing me a spear.

I swallowed and took it from her, thanking her. In that moment I realized how serious the situation was. She took the pointed end of the spear and put it up to her collar bone, showing me where to aim. Then she moved my hands so that I was holding the spear across my chest, my right hand above my left, ready. Our eyes met and she put her hand up to my cheek. She said one last thing in Malayam, I think she was telling me to be brave. I nodded and thanked her one last time.

“Ok, let’s go,” I said to Amir.

There was no room for fear in my mind when the bike started moving forward again. I was determined and ready. When the bull came at us, I would thrust the spear into its shoulder with all of my strength and I would not fall off of the bike.

There it was. As we passed the gathering of cows, I locked my eyes on the black bull and raised my right hand above my ear, so that the spear was ready to strike. The bull hesitated, and for a moment I thought that it wouldn’t follow us. But then it charged again. It wouldn’t catch us. This time the bull didn’t jump onto the road, but stayed on the other side of the fence. On that uneven terrain it could hardly keep up with us. Amir stopped and told me to drop the spear on the side of the road.

“Right,” I said, and threw it away from me.

I sighed. The moment had passed. For a while I knew what it must have felt like to be a warrior, having to defend myself if I wanted to live. Never would I have thought of spearing a cow. But as its horns were chasing me, no other option entered my mind.

For the moment a warrior, now again a traveler. I’m in Mangalore now, and tonight I’ll be braving a night train again to go South into Kerala, to Kochi. Until then.

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I haven’t gone too far from Auroville and Pondicherri just yet.  I’m travelling with my friend Eliza and her (now also my) friend Mike, both intrepid wanderers who have graciously taken me under their weathered wings and are teaching me the tricks of the travelling trade.

A two hour, uneventful bus ride brought us to Mamallapuram, a colorful costal town of plentiful hotels and easy to find European cuisine.  I still have a feeling that I have yet to encounter the “real” India.  If there even is such a thing.  The main attractions here are caves that were chiseled out of solid rock, with lion sculptured pillars lining the entrances and Hindu gods carved into friezes on the interior walls.  The ancient carving tradition lives on in the stone trinkets sold in nearly every other shop, but one carver told me that a business man is flying him and ten of his students out to New York to carve sculptures for his garden.  So the craft lives on.

I think the most memorable thing about Mamallapuram for me will not be its stone carvings, but someone that I met.  I was laying on a large boulder under a tree in the park where the stone caves are, hiding from a brutal afternoon sun.  With the large stones and plentiful vegetation, the area reminded me a lot of central park… with monkeys and goats running around.  So there I was, staring up at the patches of sky between the tree above me, daydreaming, when a little girl walks up the little hill to stand next to my rock.

“Where are you from?” she asked me in surprisingly good English, and then launched into conversation.  This ten year old girl wanted to be a scientist when she grew up.   She said it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  She’s already built a speaker from scratch, and had such good English because she went to school for it on Saturday.  As I was talking to her, I couldn’t help but think about all of the times I’d read about India becoming one of the next big super powers of the world.  Yes, there’s garbage everywhere because there are hardly any trash cans (which I’m sure I’ll write about later), and yes the roads are super dangerous and not well paved, and yes many people live in one-room homes that don’t even compare to US suburban duplexes.  But  Indians seem to have an incredible sense of national pride.  They are determined to succeed, and to bring India to success.  They have the fiery passion that’s lacking in much of the US’s youth.  This is a huge generalization, but that’s because at this point it’s only a growing hunch, reaffirmed by the conversation with this ten year old. It’s something that at least deserves some more thought.

Anyway, we’re heading to Chennai tonight to catch an overnight train to Hampi.  It’ll be my first train ride ever, so I’m really excited for it.  Let you know how it goes!

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I’m off!

I intend to try writing something from the air port once I get there, or during my layover in Heathrow, but in case it doesn’t work out… I’ll see you in India!

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Tools of the Trade



I don’t think it’s a good idea to go into anything with set expectations.  I have this picture of Auroville in my mind, mostly fueled by their extensive website and stories I’ve heard from people who have been there.  I know that it will definitely be different from anywhere I’ve ever been, but other than that I’m trying not to think about it.  I’ll see what it’s like when I get there. 

Although I’ll be leaving all expectations at home, I’m still bursting with questions.  I’m going to list the ones that I think are most important, and when I get to Auroville I’m going to set out to finding answers.  With help from my cameras, voice recorder, laptop, and trusty pen and paper, I’ll share what I find with anyone who cares to know.  I have a feeling though that my most important discoveries will have nothing to do with these questions, but it’s still good to have somewhere to start.  If there are any questions that you have about ecovillages, or any things that you think I should explore while I’m in Auroville, or any of my questions that you think are really important, comment on this post and share!

Who has power?  Are decisions made by consensus?  If they are, how do they manage to do this with 2,000 residents?  Are there laws or rules?  Who enforces them?  How do Aurovillians view the decision making process?  Do they think it’s efficient? 

How do people get around?  Is everything they need within walking distance?  If not do they bike or drive? 

What’s the food like?  Is allof it grown at Auroville, and if so, what’s the farming like?

What is the Aurovillians’ relationship to technology?  Do they have computers and TVs?  How much time do they spend using them?

What do they do for a living?

Have most of the residents been born there, or have they moved from somewhere else?  If they moved to Auroville, what motivated them to do so?

What do people do with their free time?  How much free time do they have?

What kind of relationship do Aurovillians have with each other?  How well do they know each other? 

How do Aurovillians view nature and their connection to it?

What role does spirituality play in everyday life?

How do Aurovillians view environmental problems like global warming and pollution?  Do they see their lifestyle as a way to offset these issues?

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