A Long Journey

164_6445-4.JPGIt’s been a long journey, but we made it to Nepal. On the 23rd, we flew from Male to Trivandrum, where we caught an overnight train to Chennai. We hung out with Krishna, one of our California friends currently volunteering in India, who gave us a place to stay and took us around. See Joylani’s post for more on Chennai. Then on the 26th, we flew from Chennai to Delhi. Although living on a train for a couple days seemed fine to me, I heeded my parents’ advice to “spend the money” necessary to make my wife happy. Anyways, after our flight and a day in Delhi, we did have to get on another train bound for Gorakhpur, in UP. Although it left pretty close to on-time, we arrived in Gorakhpur a few hours late. From the train station, we shared a jeep with a Nepali family to the border. So on the 27th, we crossed the border from Sunauli (India) to Belahiya (Nepal), spent the night there, and this morning took a bus to Pokhara.

To summarize, our past week has taken us from the Indian Ocean to Himalayas. Two flights, two overnight trains, two nights hanging out with friends, and two border crossings is all it took to get from the Maldives to Nepal in a week. This isn’t to mention the two times we witnessed our drivers getting hassled by the corrupt Indian cops and having to pay bribes (once our rickshaw driver in Delhi and once our jeep driver from Gorakhpur to the Sonauli border), which Joylani was astonished to see. Like I began this post saying, “it’s been a long journey.”




joylani 130pxOur last real stop in India on our way to Nepal was in Chennai.  The reason for the stop was two-fold: say hello to a friend from home who is currently volunteering in India for the year, and to look for my great great uncle.  Earlier this year, my Uncle Mike told me about Reverend Samuel Hamel, my great grandmother’s favorite uncle.  He was a missionary in India, and believed to be buried in Chennai.  The story was pretty vague, but after Matt and I decided for sure to stop through Chennai, I emailed my uncle to see if he knew of any other information about our distant relative.  He was able to locate an obituary in the NY Times that let us know Samuel Hamel died of acute appendicitis on a train en route to Ramapatnam, AP, in 1912.  Despite the lack of conclusive info on where he may have been buried, being the first member of my mom’s family to be in Chennai since Samuel Hamel, I wanted to at least make an attempt to find him, or at least more information as to his whereabouts.  So our second day in Chennai, Matt and I headed to the Madras Cemeteries Board (also a tip from my Uncle Mike).  They have a database of burials for several cemeteries in the city.  I waited anxiously as the worker looked up my relatives name—could it be so easy?  Just a search on an excel spreadsheet and viola! I would know the location of his gravesite?  Unfortunately not.  There was no information as to where he would be.  Nonetheless, it was an interesting day—playing detective for a few hours as I looked up the location of the Cemeteries Board and waited for them to look up information on my request.  Afterward, Matt and I walked around the cemetery to see what it might look like, wherever Samuel Hamel is buried. 

As for the other part of our Chennai stop, visiting our friend Krishna, it was fun as expected.  For the first time since leaving home, we spent the night in a normal residence rather than a guesthouse or in transit.  Even before we got to his neighborhood, we were impressed upon arrival at the main train station, which seemed to have everything: multiple restaurants, book shop, pharmacy, even a medical station with a defilibrator.  We discovered the convenience of luggage storage as we checked our bags for the day while we wandered around until Krishna was done with work.  Not only was it fun to see a little bit of Krishna’s daily life as a volunteer…it was nice to just hang out in a residential part of town.  Luckily for us, Krishna is no stranger to carnivorous ways, so when we went out to eat, there was always plenty of meat on the table.  After seeing “Chicken 65” on the menu for the past month, we finally ordered it on Krishna’s recommendation.  Like “Chicken Lollipops,” another Indian chicken dish, “Chicken 65” just didn’t sound too appealing to me, but it turned out to be great.  A fulfilling visit to a Keralan restaurant and of course lots of chais completed our quick stopover in Chennai.  We didn’t see any “sights” in Chennai, but hanging out with Krishna and his upstairs neighbors was all we needed to make the stop in Chennai fun and memorable.  Thanks guys!

The Maldives


Our resort, Embudu

us 150pxThe past week was, as Joylani called it, a vacation from our vacation. As you can imagine, we didn’t spend much of our Maldivian anniversary trip writing. Suffice it to say that it was a great week, couldn’t have asked for anything better. The clear waters of the Indian Ocean were steps away from pretty much any point on the island, and we could hear the water lapping on the shore as we fell asleep each night. Our days in the Maldives were more or less spent according to this wondrous schedule:

6am wake up, watch the end of the sunrise

7am breakfast buffet…mmm French toast and sausage

9am snorkel

12:30pm lunch buffet, afternoon lazy time

3pm snorkel

6pm watch sunset

7:30pm dinner

9:00pm fall asleep because we’re tired from all the snorkeling and eating…

Here’s a few tidbits of our week:


Joylani with a baby hermit crab….one of dozens she picked up and played with all week.

  • It was really nice. Embudu, the island resort we stayed at, is a small atoll of white sand and surrounded by turquoise water and an amazing house reef. Meticulous landscaping completed the look as carefully placed and pruned trees and bushes provided both shade and the suggestion of paths. Coconut palms, hibiscus, and plumeria trees added color and character. Personal-sized beaches dotted the perimeter of the island where the gardener had been sure to leave a space between the bushes, and for the more social types, there are sandy bars at either end of the island. There are a few over-water bungalows with windows in the floor looking down over the reef, but most of the rooms are simple but spacious bungalows built along the perimeter of the island in clumps of four. Maldivian hammock swings were hung from the trees throughout the island, and beach chairs could be found by all the sandy coves. Each morning the grounds crew would rake the paths and the waterline alone the shore to get rid of any plant debris and sharp bits of coral deposited the day before. The island had a good balance of natural and artificial elements. It could be compared to a tasteful French manicure—the addition of gloss and white tips without tacky decals and neon nail polish. Aside from the obvious natural (and naturally enhanced) beauty, Embudu was nice because it was a tropical island resort aimed at western holiday-makers. All this was amplified by the fact that it wasn’t India. The beaches were absolutely beautiful and good place to hang out at, enhanced by the fact that groups of Indian guys weren’t staring at the women. Having a nightly turndown service was nice, but so was having just regular room service in the mornings. Imagine: fresh towels…every day. The other wonderful point about out getaway was the food; that deserves a bullet-point of its own.


right outside our room…

  • Buffet time! With no other place to eat except the buffet, meal times became relaxing as we no longer needed to deal with selecting a restaurant from a “gauntlet” of anxious (desperate) restaurateurs vying for our business as we had the last month. Not only that, but we didn’t have to pick-up a single menu. All we had to do was walk up to a tray of food, and if it looked good, put a little on our plates. The buffet was unbelievable and the table of European desserts absolutely amazing. Fresh lychee parfait, tiramisu, crème brulee, chocolate strawberry cake, passion fruit, papayas, watermelon…Even the veggies were amazing: steamed brussel sprouts, fresh salads, caramelized carrots, grilled pumpkin. It had been so long since we’d eaten a veg not coated in masala or curry sauce. Our favorite night of all was BBQ night during which we loaded our plates with BBQ chicken, pork, grilled corn, and, of course, good ol’ American-style tangy BBQ sauce. All week long we filled up on beef and pork (the “forbidden foods”), fresh bread, fruit, veggies, and, of course, dessert. We got excited when we saw “Asian Night” up on the menu board one day, only to find that Asian meant Indian food. Even though we had been hoping for chow mien and miso soup, Indian night didn’t disappoint us as we were able to try some new dishes like banana flower, bitter gourd, and (our favorite) egg hoppers (actually, that one is a Sri Lankan dish). All in all, is was simply nice to take a break from our Indian diet and to be able to eat western food period—not futile Indian attempts at Chainese, Maxican, or Countintal , the food we were being served was the real deal. And even though we love a good chana masala and porota for breakfast, we have to give the edge to French toast, hashbrowns, beef sausage, non-greasy eggs, and bacon—pretty much a grandslam breakfast at Dennys. It was just what we needed for our vacation from our vacation.


dining room

  • Our disastrous night-fishing trip. One of the three “excursions” we took was a three-hour night-fishing trip. At sunset, we set out for a nearby reef, armed with line wound around a block of wood, a weight, and a hook with a chunk of fish on it. Most of the people caught at least one fish, while the captain must’ve caught a half dozen fish by himself. Some people hooked and pulled up coral formations, as well. We finished the night fishless. Joylani hooked a big fish, so big in fact that one of the boat crew had to take over her “pole” to reel the line in. Unfortunately the fish was so big that it snapped the hook right off the line. Joylani went on to lose her hook three more times during our nocturnal fishing adventure. Unfortunately they weren’t as obvious as the first time, and sometimes she went for a while without realizing that her line no longer had a hook on the end. I (Joylani) believe this is to account for the lack of fish I caught. Matt on the other hand…I’ll let him explain why he didn’t catch any fish. I (Matt) actually hooked Joylani’s line once and I got the captain’s once too. Once, I pulled up a big ball of fishing line (note: if you try to “cast” further, don’t ball up your line, weight, and hook and then throw it- it won’t untangle underwater). Despite our failures, they graciously gave us one of captain’s catches for dinner.


  • Dress Code. The Maldives are a predominantly European destination and Embudu was geared towards Germans. The dress code for men was generally Speedos. There were a large number of black bikinis, rather than colorful ones you see in places like Hawaii. Women generally dressed up for dinner, while the men wore the same t-shirts every night. With sand covering most of the island, including the hotel lobby, going barefoot was the general norm.
  • The water. 80F temps year round. Perfect visibility. What more to say?


  • Snorkeling. Three years ago, the Maldivian reefs showed me that snorkeling could be awesome, not just some touristy gimmick to do when on Oahu. Although I’ve (Matt) snorkeled quite a bit since then, this is by far the best snorkeling since my last visit. Reef fish, stingrays, sharks, turtles, coral, and so on inhabited the reef just off-shore from our island. We could snorkel at our leisure, not needing to schedule a boat to take us out to the reef. Swimming out over the channel connecting the shallows to the outer edge of the reef gave a flying sensation as the sea floor below us dropped off several meters. Each time we went out snorkeling we would notice something new from the funny little polyps growing on the coral to dainty jellies floating near the surface. We made up our own names for the fish we saw—Laker fish (for the yellow, black, and purple stripes), unicorn fish (actually the real name), the ones-with-the-blue-eyeshadow…God was sure having fun when he made all those funny little fish and sea creatures. Seeing the sealife out of the water was exciting too. I guess I never really thought about fish and stuff doing fun things, but when we were out there on the water, we saw all different types of fish jumping out of the water or dancing across the water on their tails. On our island-hopping excursion, we ran into a pod a dolphins and dozens of them were just jumping in the air doing flips or rolls. It was cool to see wild animals doing these things.


talk about a “sky-on-fire” sunset

  • The Characters. Some our highlights were the other guests on Embudu. From the old German guy on our excursions to the Spanish lady with the nephew, to the animated Austrian guy, our fellow guests were interesting and hugely entertaining. After typing the stories, we realize they’re not going to be as entertaining to you as it was for us to observe the other guests, but here are a few short descriptions of our aforementioned favorites. Night fishing was where we met the man in the black socks. He was a friendly old fellow who always seemed to be striking up conversations with the other guests. Later encounters with this friendly German fellow included our island hopping trip, sightings at dinner, and once Matt spotted him walking backwards 20 yards from his room to the water in full snorkel gear and a turquoise speedo. He had traded in his black shoes and socks for fins. The first couple nights we shared a table with other guests; our favorite was the Austrian guy who was happy to practice his English with us. We conversed on the fish, food, and, of course, Arnold. Between meals we’d spot him around the island doing various things from snorkeling to walking on his slack line. (If you’ve ever read Go Dog Go, it was kind of like the poodle and the spotted dog.) Our other tablemate was a Spanish woman who filled us in on the plight of her nephew who was unhappily stuck in a contract working at one of the other Maldivian resorts (what a tough situation right- stuck on a Maldivian atoll). She had come to comfort him and even though she couldn’t stay at the island where he was working, she planned to speak with him on the phone each day to help coach him through his crisis. At the end of her stay, she informed us that her nephew had decided to terminate his contract and would only be working for 2 more months, per the early termination terms. Happily though, the nephew had managed to pick up a Filipina fiancé during his short tenure in the Maldives and the auntie now had a new project to focus on: finding the fiancé work in Spain. Oh the life of a Spanish auntie: snorkel by day, solve the family problems by night. All our musings about our fellow guests made us wonder one thing…what must they think of us?


we might’ve looked kinda funny to other tourists…


Anniversary Voyage


164_6445-4.JPGFor our first anniversary, I took Joylani to Yosemite National Park. Ignoring the low tire treads we noticed on the way there, we consequently spent the entire morning of our first anniversary in a tow-truck (using all of AAA’s maximum allowance of 100 miles per tow) to Modesto. Needless to say, I was hoping the morning of our second anniversary would turn out better. I had inquired about sailing a couple of times during the week and knew to head for the Watersports Office (a shed covering windsurfing gear and kayaks) and look for a guy wearing sunglasses (Haleem). So after breakfast (which also beat the meager meal of left-over champagne and fig newtons we had a year earlier), we headed all 200 feet to the “office.” Sitting in chair-swing hanging from a tree next to the shed was sunglasses man, Haleem. Aside from the sunglasses he was sporting a Embudu polo, shorts, and bare feet. If it wasn’t for the Embudu shirt, I may have mistaken him for a tourist relaxing. He wasn’t doing anything, just slightly swinging and staring off into space. He looked like a kid just daydreaming there. Assuming he was awake, I asked, “Is this where we line up catamaran sailing?”

Not moving, he replied, “Yeah.”

“Uh, okay, well what options do you have?”


“Yea, like you have a one-hour sailing and a four hour sailing? What things can we do?”

He still hadn’t changed positions, except to twist his chair a bit more towards us, but replied, “What you want to do?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking. If we do the one hour what can we do?”

“I take you snorkeling, see some big shark. Big stingray.”

“If we go snorkeling, how long are we in the water?”

“Depends on the weather. Some days we can sail fast, some days slow.”

“How about the weather today.”

“Weather is good today.”

“And the four hour sailing?”

“We can do the same thing. Maybe go to some sandbank, maybe another island.”

“Yea, that sounds good.” Unmoved by my comment, I added, “We’d like to do that.”

“You want to do four hour sailing?”


“When you want to go? Now?”

“Yea, now’s good,” I replied, at which point he chuckled as if he realized he would finally have to move.


Joylani before the sailing….notice storm in background

We met at the catamaran five minutes later. While Joylani and I had grabbed some water, sunscreen, and waterproof camera, Haleem had beached the craft. We threw our water and sunscreen in one of the hulls and secured our snorkel gear to the netting. We hopped in before Haleem pushed off from beach and hopped in himself, frantically pulling all sorts of ropes and lines. We were immediately racing across the lagoon towards the reef. The catamaran went right over the reef and into the open sea, easily clearing the shallow coral below. I haven’t yet mentioned that it was the windiest morning yet, producing the first white caps we’d seen all week. Once we got out on the water and were on the other side of the island, we could see a storm obscuring any view of Male and the nearby islands. Apparently the reef was below the storm, because we headed straight into it. Within five minutes of leaving sunny Embudu, we were being tossed about in a storm. Sheets of cold rain pelted us as we rode the endless dunes of water. As the wind picked up, Haleem had us all sit one side to weigh it down- the other hull bounced up and down off the ocean’s surface with each wave and gust. Our side bounced quite a bit too, but it was nice as the splashes of ocean water felt incredibly warm (Maldivian waters are about 80 F year-round). Splashing is an understatement, as each walls of water that came at us could easily completely drench even a dry person. Haleem remained calm in the midst of all this. Almost too calm in light of the fact that it seemed the wind would blow us over, but it somehow reassured me. He also verbally reassured us that it would be good weather after the storm passed through. Once the winds calmed, we got going again, making our way to a large underwater plateau of coral.


Joylani 5 minutes later…


Hopping out into warm neck-high water, we were soon surrounded by huge stingrays. They were by far the largest ones I have ever seen. Even the cloudy storm water, we could see them circling around us, their long tails trailing behind them. One had a half-dozen fish swimming on its back. The larger lemon sharks eluded us, although Haleem claimed he spotted a few from the boat. After 30 minutes or so in the water, we hopped back aboard and set off for a sandbank. We had been to the same sandbank on our island-hopping excursion the day before, but I enjoy sailing (at least all the times I’ve been) and Joylani really enjoyed the sandbank the day before. The wind was strong and we sped south. Again, we all sat on the left hull. We pretty much sailed the entire way on the left hull, while the right one just skimmed and bounced off the surface of the water. It was kind of like watching those old rap music videos where they’re driving old Cadillacs on just the left wheels. But just as before, we got drenched. The hull crashed up and down as we traversed the waves coming from the west. Every couple of minutes, the front of the hull would momentarily dip below the surface, digging up and tossing buckets of seawater on us. The hour sailing south was spent mostly hanging on to the boat with one hand and continually wiping water from our eyes with the other. The sandbank was enjoyable but not very eventful. We walked around the small beach and took a couple pictures and spent the duration of our time snorkeling around the perimeter of the surrounding reef.


sandbar in the middle of the Indian Ocean!

The trip back to Embudu was much the same as the trip to the sandbank- rough and wet. I’ve written a bit about my daydreams leading up to this whole RTW trip; one of them was instigated whenever I browsed through Lonely Planet’s “The World Book” (which was always on our coffee table) and stumbled across the Kiribati page or the Solomon Islands page. The large spreads depicting men sailing or kids playing in the blue water. Not deep blue or dark blue water, but blue blue. The truest blue imaginable. And here we were, sailing across just that. Our anniversary sailing trip was the highlight of my week and I cannot think of better way to spend our anniversary than sailing across the endless ocean blue. Well, it beats a tow truck at least.


Is there anything better than this?


and how could I pass up posting this post-sailing pic of Joylani :)

On Keralan Breakfasts

joylani 130px

Matt and I discovered the goodness of the South Indian breakfast.  It all started in Bangalore.  (Which isn’t actually in Kerala.)  We arrived early in the morning and, much to our chagrin, every restaurant we came across was closed until 9 or 10am.  It was 7:30.  Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too much longer to eat because while the next hotel we inquired at didn’t have a vacancy, at least it had a restaurant that was open for business.  We set our bags down on the floor and sat down to order.

Rule #1: No menus

There was no menu, so we asked our barefoot waiter what the restaurant was serving for breakfast. The good places, the ones where there are just locals, don’t have menus. Or if they do, it’s a sign posted on the wall in loopy script that is indecipherable to our western eyes. This makes it necessary to ask what’s for breakfast. The waiter will list off a few options, or maybe just one if it’s a small restaurant. “Dosas, idly, uppom” our waiter said. We each ordered a masala dosa—a big, crepe-like pancake (a little crispier) rolled around warm potatoes and onions with a small bowls of masala and coconut chutney on the side. The masala is not a thick sauce, though it does have small chunks of tomatoes and onion in it. I like to open up the dosa and pour the sauce over the potatoes. The masala seeps into the potatoes and dosa, making it more pliable and easier to eat.

Rule #2: Eat with your hand

We were sitting in the upstairs AC section of a restaurant when I learned how to really eat with my hands. Looking through the tableside window into the downstairs section of the restaurant, I observed locals pouring saucy curries and veggies over platefuls of rice, then eating with their right hand. So how does one eat rice and curry without getting sauce all over your hand? The secret is: you don’t. Of course it gets messy. Meal time isn’t for daintily picking up a few grains of rice with the sauce strategically placed away from your finger tips, nor is it a time to artfully wrap a small piece of chapatti around a chunk of potato. Meal time is more about just going for it. The sauce and your fingers will meet. There’s no need to go for a napkin in between bites because the next will just coat your skin with curry all over again. (Just be sure to wash your hands before and after you eat—that’s what the wash basin in the corner of every restaurant is for.) Once I really learned how to eat without a utensil, it made eating those masala dosas easier and more enjoyable.

Rule #3: Know your breads

It is generally a good thing to know what types of food are offered where you will be traveling.  This knowledge serves as a starting framework for a new cuisine, and makes ordering so much easier.  In India, and many other places I’m sure, I’ve found it difficult to get a clear idea of what new dishes are from the waiter’s description.  “ Saucy, with Indian spices,” is the usual response I get when inquiring about a dish.  So anyways, if you should happen to go to one of those hole-in-the-wall, no-menu type places the next time you are in Kerala (soon, right?), it is a good thing to know your breads.


Dosa—made from chickpea flour. This one is a masala dosa.


Porota—our favorite discovery. This bread has several flaky layers but is slightly chewy in texture and always delicious.


Idly—made from fermented rice (I think…). These ones are part of a packaged meal we bought on the train.

If you’re like us, you may not be able to catch all the other options—masala, channa, veg curry, etc. but at least you can say: “Dosa” or “Porota” with confidence, and the waiter will just bring an accompanying dish to go with the bread. And in the restaurants where they only make one dish each day, the bread is the only choice you’ll have to make. That, and black tea, or chai?

Rule #4: Follow the locals

For a good breakfast, or any meal for that matter, it is good to look for the crowds.  Where are all the other people eating?  A busy restaurant generally means two things: the food is tasty, and (hopefully) the food should be fresher because its being eaten before it has time to go bad.  The other important thing to look for is: where are all the Indians eating?  Matt and I asked ourselves this question one day in Kovalam as we were sitting at a restaurant along the beach front.  There were a few other people in the restaurant, but like the other places we’d passed along the way, none of the patrons were Indians.  But we had seen dozens of Indian tourists on the beach.  So where did they all eat?  Finally we discovered the location of all the good food, up a hill by the local bus stand.  We were relieved to have solved the mystery of where the Indians ate, now we could feast on our beloved porotas again (they weren’t even offered at the places we’d been eating).  In addition to the availability of the porota, a local joint (often called “hotel” rather than restaurant) generally means there will be cheap food—at least cheaper than the tourist-oriented restaurants that line the main strip of each of the beaches we visited.  It goes without saying that cheap is a good thing when you’re on a budget, but compared to the mid-range* restaurants frequented almost exclusively by foreign tourists, we liked the taste of the food at the cheaper* ones better (*no expensive restaurants were included in this study).  Case in point: on our last day in Kerala before heading to the airport, Matt and I went to one of the hotel up the hill for a quick breakfast.  As we crested the top of the hill the road we were walking on merged with another.  We came upon a group of twenty local blokes sporting their button-up dress shirts and longhis.  Wondering where they we headed, we quickened our pace as we realized they were headed the same place as us: where the locals eat.

Matt’s India Review

164_6445-4.JPGFor all intensive purposes, our time in India is up. After the Maldives, we’ll pass through on our way to Nepal and then again on our way to Thailand. But even the aggregate of that time will be short and it will be mainly transitory anyhow. With India largely over, the inevitable question is “How would I rate our time here?” To answer that question, I’ll have to look back at the three objectives I had for this portion of the itinerary.

· Introduce Joylani to more of India than Delhi and Rajasthan (which she had already seen)

· Spend time in the regions that I wanted to explore more fully

· Visit and explore a few new places

Goal 1: Unlike some other countries that we’ve visited so far, I’m not writing about whether or not I like India or whether we’ll return. The fact that we’re both visiting for the second time should answer the first question and the fact that we have 10 year visas should answer the second one. Plus, I’m sure my past posts have made it clear that I fell in love with India during the six months that I lived and traveled here three years ago. When Joylani visited me back then, I showed her around Delhi for a week and then we explored Rajasthan together for a week and a half. Delhi and Rajasthan are both interesting places and quite different from one another (urban vs. rural), yet they share many similarities (ethnicity/religious makeup/language/geography/history/etc) and are both what I would call “stereotypical India” (from the western perspective).

But I think the best part of India is its ethno-religious-linguistic-geo-political-historical diversity. And I’d say that Joylani saw way more of India than she even imagined existed before. We started off with three weeks in Ladakh, a historic Buddhist kingdom nestled on the edge of the high-altitude Tibetan plateau, populated by central Asians, practicing Buddhism, and speaking Ladakhi, Hindi, or Urdu. Heading south, we spent some time in the homogenous Hindi-belt, located on the agricultural Indo-Gangetic plateau, named for its Hindi-speaking population, most of which practice Hinduism, and share in the common history of North India from the ancient Harappan (Indus Valley) Civilization through the Moghuls and British Raj. Going down the coast, we hit Goa full of Indo-Portuguese Catholics, speaking Konkan, living on the humid and jungle-covered coast, and were ruled from Lisbon for 400 of the last 450 years. Then we went to Hampi and Bangalore, on the Deccan Plateau, both of which share the Dravidian ethnicity, the Kannada language, are split between Muslim and Hindu, and can claim the rich history of the Hyderabad Sultanate. And now in Kerala, a tropical-coastal state, ethnic roots mixed between Dravidian, European, Arab, SE Asia, and anyone else that’s sailed/traded on the famed Malabar Coast for the past few millennia. They speak Malayalam, have large Hindu, Muslim, and Christian populations, and are governed by communists. And this isn’t even mentioning the smaller regions/communities we’ve passed through or the major regions we’ll be briefly visiting (Tamil Nadu and West Bengal). We’ve gone from mountain desert to tropical beaches, from fields of grains to hills covered in jungle, and tons of Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Christian cathedrals. By the end of India, we’ll have seen the four major cities and a handful of state capitols, as well as have stayed in some tiny and medium-sized villages. We’ve traveled by plane, train, metro, bus, van, jeep, car, auto-rickshaw, and bike-rickshaw. We have seen and done a ton of stuff. Its been fun to hear the things Joylani notices and learns in each new place we go, for its always fun when those closest to us enjoy the things we do. Since Ladakh, I’ve felt like my first objective of showing Joylani more of India has been met. But I knew it was complete when she quoted my dad’s oft-repeated response to people that say they don’t like a particular type of wine (“You mean you just haven’t tried a red wine you like yet”). About two weeks ago, she said to me, “If anyone tells me they don’t like India, I’m just gonna tell them they haven’t been to a part that they like yet.”

Goal 2: When I lived in Delhi three years ago, I only spent extended amounts of time in those regions within a day’s journey of the capitol (Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh). But having traveled all over the subcontinent and having visited most regions at least briefly, I had a couple of regions earmarked for further exploration on this trip- Ladakh and Kerala. During the few days that I had previously spent in both regions, I was both impressed and eager to explore more. On this trip, we spent our first three weeks in Ladakh and our last three in Kerala (which account for about half of our time in India). Both states were awesome and well worth the visit, although I’d have to give Ladakh’s scenery the edge over Kerala’s tropical beaches and plethora of seafood. There remains other regions/states in India that I’ve visited and would like to further explore (mainly Kashmir, Uttaranchal, and West Bengal), but I couldn’t be more pleased with our time in Ladakh and Kerala.

Goal 3: Visiting new places was a mixed bag. For Joylani, everywhere was a new place, but that’s after I screened out a lot of places not worth going. On one hand, I really like Varkala, Bangalore, and the multi-day jeep trips we took from Leh. Hampi and Khajuraho were okay, but I definitely would have skipped Orchha. By the numbers, it appears that this objective was met relatively successfully. But in hindsight, I could have stayed less time in quite a few of these places. But on the other hand, that’s the price of visiting unknown places without any onward travel plans; the price of exploration. Orchha was like the price we paid for enjoying the other new places that we liked. We could have avoided Orchha by not visiting any new places, but then we would have missed out on Bangalore and Varkala. And if I only went to the places I thought I’d like, I would’ve said we shouldn’t go to Bangalore or Hampi (both of which I did like). Plus, we don’t always like the places we think we will (I thought Orchha would be cool). India’s a huge country and there’s still a lot of places that I’d like to visit, but I was happy with seeing the new places that we did. Exploring and visiting new places is always full of surprises and I’d have to say we’ve been fortunate to “discover” more places we liked than didn’t like. Overall, I liked seeing the new places we did.

And so, there you have my evaluation of our time in India. Joylani really got to “know” India, we spent time in and explored what I consider the two coolest parts of India, and we both explored some amazing new places. Two and a half months ago, I was hoping I could say these things when we departed India, and I am. Not just that, but overall it’s been a fun and good time. We’ve seen a ton, talked a lot and learned a lot with and from each other, and it’s also been a good way to kick-off our Asia circuit with a somewhat familiar and English-speaking country. Thus, not only must I rate our time here very highly, but give plenty of thanks for how our time in India has gone.

PS. I should note that I was also going to publish a post on all the things I dislike about India, just to give a balanced picture of the place. But I’ve decided against publishing it, since most of my frustrations/criticisms are consequences of poverty and undereducation. Granted, the undereducated and impoverished make up a majority of the population, but I feel it would be more a critique of the poor/uneducated (littering, constant pushing/shoving, male immaturity, ego/cultural/ethnocentrism, caste/class problems) than a critique of India specifically. Nonetheless, do know that India is a relatively tough place to travel (in many ways) and not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve enjoyed it nonetheless.

On Kochi

If anything, our two-day stay in Kochi was educational. To get there, we left Bangalore early in the morning and arrived at the Ernakulum train station around five that evening, ten hours later. To get to the older, touristier part of Kochi we needed to catch a ferry. On the map in our guidebook the ferry terminal didn’t look too far away from the train station, so we decided to walk. Of course, this took longer than we expected but it was ok as it was fairly cool since the sun was setting and it gave me a chance to take in my first taste of Kerala. Just outside of the train station we spotted dozens of red flags, and drummers performing a synchronized routine—almost like an Indian version of a drumline. It was a parade advertising a political event for Kerala’s communist government. We walked on and finally arrived at the ferry terminal. Our fare was 5 rupees for both of us—what a deal! By this time it was dark out and we couldn’t really tell where we were going, but based off the other tourists on the boat, we figured we were headed the right direction. Disembarking from the boat we continued with the same logic and followed the “white folks” down the road towards the hotels. Eventually I made Matt stop to check the map in the guidebook to make sure we were heading in the right direction. Just then a man pulled up on his motorcycle.

“Do you need a room?” he asked, handing me a card for his homestay. Normally we dismiss anyone off the street who tries to show us a room because the room price will be higher to pay for his or her commission. This time though, we decided to go with him for a couple of reasons: 1.) it was his homestay (ie no commission), 2.) he quoted a fair price right away, 3.) the business card looked nice and the rooms looked clean, it pays to have a good graphic designer. Upon inspection, the room turned out to be ok and for the first time in India, we stopped looking after the first hotel. After a day of train, ferry, and walking, finding a room so easily was quite a relief.

Our brief stay in Kochi was unexpectedly educational. The first night we received a comprehensive overview of how long it took to walk around the old section of Kochi via the map on the back of the business card. Granted, it wasn’t a very big map, but our host was very thorough and enthusiastic. “Go this way to intersection, there’s two restaurants; one veg, one Italian. Don’t go here to this restaurant, they use old food…” Although his thoroughness took a little bit longer than usual to check into our room, it worked to our advantage as he helped us find a couple of activities during our stay in Kochi: the Katakali show and a backwater tour. We decided to go with the show the first night and take the backwater tour our second day, and then leave on the third for Varkala via KSRTC buses (Kerala State Road Transit Corporation).

Since the Katakali show didn’t start until 5:30pm, we had some time to kill, about a whole day. We walked around the shore area where we watched our next lesson: how a Chinese fishing net works.


One end has a big net, the other a bunch of weights (aka rocks tied to ropes and little fishermen). The nets would stay in the water for about 2-3 minutes and then the fishermen would use the lever to pull it back up, hurriedly gathering their catch before the birds ate it. Each net is basically a big seesaw made to catch fish. Actually, it’s probably more complex than that, the mechanics at all. But at least we got the basic idea down.

Finally the next educational part of our day came: it was time for Katakali. Katakali is a form of theater that intricately incorporates elements of music,  acting, costume, and religious stories.  The show actually begins before the performance with the actors putting on their make-up. It’s a pretty elaborate process, including pieces of paper that get pasted to the some of the actors’ faces.


Since I was completely unfamiliar with the art form, I didn’t know what the make-up was supposed to look like and each time they added a new color or line of dots (or for one guy a paper flower on the tip of his nose) was like adding another layer of ornaments and lights to a gaudy Christmas tree.


Crazy costumes completed the look, right done to long silver fingernail tips. Before the story began, one of the actors demonstrated some of the facial movements for the audience (all tourists; all taking lots of pictures). The actors don’t use words, so the facial and body movements are an important part of the story. Picture normal acting, and then picture it exaggerated with eyes blinking multiple times over to signify one emotion or another. If I was a little kid, between the crazy make-up and costumes together with the facial movements, I would probably be a little freaked out by the actors. The final thing we deduced from the performance was that it was an interesting experience but for our short attention spans at the end of the day, it could have been reduced to about 25 minutes—5 minutes to show the different stages of make-up, 10 minutes for the demonstration, and 10 minutes for a condensed version of the story. Three hours was just a little too long…

The next morning we woke up early to catch our bus to the starting point for our backwater tour. Our boat had no motor and was powered by two guys pushing the boat along with long poles.


The pushers walked up and down the sides of the boat pushing us along all day. They must have walked a few miles on that 15 foot strip of wood. With no motor, the ride was quiet and peaceful. We reclined in our rattan chairs and took in the scenery—lots of palm trees and lily pads.

Before lunch we made two stops to observe some of the local industries—coir making and calcium carbonate production. The coir is rope made from coconut husk.




Apron lady

Spinner lady

The outer portion of a coconut is soaked for 6 months to strengthen the husk. After this time it is easily removed from the shell and much stronger that before the aging/soaking process. Then these ladies gather it up in their aprons while spinning wheel lady does her thing. The apron ladies slowly walk backwards as the husk spins itself out of the aprons into strands of coir. The strands are then spun together to make the rope. At the coir stop we also learned what pepper looks like before it ends up on your table in a little shaker.


As for the calcium carbonate (or something like that—it’s used for painting, purifying, pharmaceuticals…), this stuff is made from shells. Lots of little shells. They dry out the shells and then at the factory (a couple of sheds with a big furnace) they burn the shells until it become white powder. The finished product is packed up and shipped off.


Finished product

Calcium carbonate. There you have it. (Hopefully my explanation wasn’t too technical for you, feel free to email me for the dumbed-down version). After the educational part of the tour was over, we transferred over to a small canoe to explore some smaller channels as we waited for our lunch to finish cooking.



The “traditional Keralan meal” was tasty and filling; I think all the passengers returned to the boat very full. Due to the pushing, the boat ride was extremely slow-paced, and after a while the novelty of the scenery wasn’t so novel. The passengers put away their cameras, and everyone kicked back for a siesta during the final portion of our tour, waking up just in time to get off the boat for the bus ride back to Kochi.

The last interesting part of our stay in Kochi (besides seeing the same Korean couple that we’d seen in Hampi and Bangalore on our ferry ride and at the Katakali performace) was that we met 3 UC students. The first two we met sat behind us on the bus to the backwater tour. Upon hearing English spoken with an American accent, I immediately started to eavesdrop (it had been a while). It only took a few tidbits of information for me to deduce that they were UC students on EAP (the same program Matt studied abroad with 3 years ago). #1.) Explaining how a Guinness widget works by comparing it to “a lime soda like the ones they serve by school.” #2.) Talking about Magic Mountain, a theme park in Southern California. #3.) Discussing journals and how MLA is preferable to Chicago style, and wow, so and so’s research was SO interesting. The third tidbit was the cincher. Using my advanced dectective skills I already knew the girls behind us were college students from California, but no CSU student would talk about writing guidelines and research as enthusiastically as those two. (CSU alumi, I mean no offense by the previous sentence as I find discussing the pros and cons of Chicago vs MLA during a backwater tour of Kerala kind of strange myself.) They had to be from the UC system—UCLA and Cal to be exact. No wonder. The third UCer we met was also from Cal. Being a solo traveler with probably not much else to do besides eavesdrop (like myself at times), he honed into our American English and said hello. Matt doesn’t think to much of us meeting 3 UC students in one day (“We’re all over the place,” he says), but I thought it was kinda cool. It’s not everyday you meet three people from the same university system during your stay in Kochi.



164_6445-4.JPGWith the exception of our weeklong excursion to Hampi and Bangalore, Joylani have spent the last month at the beach. If you’ll recall our first post from Goa, it was so great to get to the beach. And its been a great month since then. We’ve had a string of good guesthouses, mostly part of a familys’ home and mostly overlooking the beach/ocean. Our three weeks in Kerala has been a story of lazy days spent at the beach and tons of seafood. While I never once got bored or sick of the food in Calangute or Varkala, I think I’ve reached my limit here in Kovalam. I love seafood, but I’m beginning to crave non-seafood dishes. I love lounging at the beach all day without any worries, but I’m beginning to yearn for a change. Yesterday is a good example, filled with indicators that we’re ready for a change. We set off in the morning for Thiravanathapuram (for obvious reasons, it still goes by its old name of Trivandrum), to explore the state capitol and run some errands. Indicator number 1: We left the beach for the city. When we arrived, we found a cheap little hole-in-the-wall restaurant to eat breakfast. Indicator number 2: Joylani craves south Indian food (breakfasts especially) and prefers hole-in-the-wall (even with all the unsanitary conditions) places to nicer restaurants serving Westernized food (which is pretty surprising to me). Also, I get agitated if my breakfast is too bland- who would’ve ever guessed Joylani would search out dingy Indian restaurants and I would like my breakfast spicy? When we returned in the afternoon, we just hung out on our balcony rather than go swimming. Indicator number 3: When we first got the beach, we couldn’t stay out of the water. Now, we’re content to stay in the cooler indoors- Kovalam might be the hottest/most humid place we’ve been so far. The last two nights, we haven’t ordered any seafood. Indicator number 4: I’m not indulging in the thing I like most about Kerala. What’s the point of staying at the beach, if you’re not going to swim, hang out in the city during the day, and skip out on the seafood?

Luckily, we’re leaving tomorrow to celebrate our second anniversary in what I consider to be one of the best places on the globe. See you in a week!


load up the boats to cast the nets


Pull in the nets


Check out the catch


Box ‘em up


Crowds come to start buying fish




Or you go out in your boat and fish


But these boats work on the principal that wood floats, not displacing water…



164_6445-4.JPGKerala’s self-proclaimed nickname is “God’s Own Country.” This is not far from the truth in a verdant state of beaches, coconut and banana plantations, and hills of coffee and tea. This green tropical state is almost how one would picture Eden. Yet, its goodness extends far beyond its natural beauty. Those familiar with Kerala know that it’s a picture of what India could be. Independence in 1947 merged three states (two independent, plus the British-ruled province of Malabar) into present day Kerala, based on linguistic lines (Kerala is the only state that speaks Malayalam). Although many people give credit to the mainly-Italian missionaries that settled here, at the time of Independence, Kerala was much like the rest of India. In 1947, literacy in Kerala was marginally higher than the rest of India; today it boasts a 98% literacy rate, compared with 65% for the rest of India (approximately 50% for females and 75% for males). Life expectancy in Kerala is 74 years, a full 10 years more than the Indian national average. The educational system, anti-upper-caste movements, and a history of matrilineal societies have also helped Kerala avoid many social problems. The female-male ratio is 1.06 (same as western countries), compared to .93 in the rest of male-dominated female-subjugated India. Kerala is ahead of even China in many educational and health statistics, while India uniformly lags behind its neighbor across the board (except for civil rights issues, of course). In fact, China could probably learn from Kerala, where education is credited with reducing the fertility rate from the Indian national average of 3.0 to 1.9 (below that of even China). Studies have actually shown that education is better at reducing family size than coercive measures. It is widely known that Kerala has one of two communist governments in Kerala. Right-wingers always credit the missionaries for Kerala’s development, while statistics show that radical left policies have worked at curing problems here. The flipside is, of course, that economic development is behind the Indian average and many Keralan’s go abroad to find work (mainly the Middle East), which accounts for the unrivaled amount of money that flows into the state from foreign remittances. And so Kerala is a model of successful left-wing-policies being implemented in India, and it poses an interesting question: social well-being or economic growth? It seems that in a nation where 850 million are close to starving, Kerala’s prioritization of welfare is worth looking at.

Much of the information here is from The Argumentative Indian, by Amrtya Sen. It is the best book I’ve ever read on India and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about India, whether you were born and raised here or don’t know a thing about India.

Flip Side of Growth Story


164_6445-4.JPGSince I’ve covered the Indian markets and the phenomenal growth that’s occurring here, it’s only fair that I present the other side of the story. And while I mentioned that the market is being fueled by India’s emerging middle class and driven by financial institutions and the upper crust of society, the vast majority of Indians are not benefiting from the growth here. Equally amazing to the near double-digit GDP growth, is the fact that 77% of Indians live on less than .50 USD per day. That’s nearly 850 million people, more than double the population of the US! And while the middle class is growing rapidly, only 4% of Indian’s live on more than 2.5 USD per day. Think about that; that means that the Indian upper and middle classes combine for less than 4% of the population, while three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line. Aside from the occasional editorial or op-ed pieces in the papers, the economic stories focus on the growth or trivial things like how third and fifth richest people in the world are Indian.

I opened up this post by saying that this is the other side of the story. And so why is this the other side of the story rather than just another gloomy article listing horrific poverty stats? The reason it’s the other side of the story is because the central government is, in many ways, prioritizing growth over welfare. Trickle-down theory of course indicates that the poorest will at some point receive some benefit from India’s growth, but its hard to agree with some of the central governments policies. It’s ironic that after riding the brand new, clean, multi-billion dollar Delhi Metro, we emerge from the station in the middle of people living and trying to survive on the streets. Not just provide food or shelter for themselves and their families, but literally survive. And its not like India built the Metro with its own capital. Japan financed the Delhi Metro and the building contracts went to Japanese countries. So India paid billions to Japanese companies and will be sending billions in interest payments to Japan for the coming decades. The same goes for the much-anticipated Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor and a number of other projects. Its even more ridiculous because India is financing projects in even poorer countries, like Nigeria. Why not help your own before helping abroad? Still don’t think the Indian government has misplaced priorities? The reason that the Delhi-Mumbai Freight Corridor project is being delayed is that the Indian government does not want to shell out the money to compensate farmers fair-market-value for the land that will be confiscated for the project and provide relocation assistance for the people the project displaces, a condition that the Japanese are insisting on. How can the Japanese be stronger advocates for rural Indian rights than the Indian government? A number of other projects including the proposed nuclear deal with the US, have the Indian government sending billions to other countries. If India is the next big economic power and has tons of money, why doesn’t it finance its own railroads, metros, and nukes. Why doesn’t it build up its own arms industry instead of buying all their jets and tanks from Europe and America? On another note, India has one of the largest grain stockpiles in the world, but millions of Indians go hungry every day. Why? Because over 50% of the grain is siphoned off (as previously mentioned) and India wants to sustain grain prices for Indian farmers. But this comes at the expense of many more Indians. Why doesn’t India just subsidize the farmers, rather than starve its population?

Two things are clear. One, the central government is prioritizing growth and modernization over welfare. Two, the bureaucracy and corruption within the lower levels of government and slowing growth and hurting the poor. A third, less obvious, but equally important point, is that the massive impoverishment could derail the Indian growth train. Even within the financial press, there’s a fear and much talk about how India’s poor could instigate massive civil unrest that could stop growth in its tracks. The Maoists have already turned Nepal upside down and are now agitating things out in the Indian countryside. Their influence and the number of “incidents” has been growing rapidly. There’s a large movement against western retailers and chains in India, while they’ve already shut down Indian chain-retailers in major states such as UP. The possibility of massive civil unrest is small (maybe even smaller if you look at the history of India and the absence of any major class violence). Yet, it still remains a possibility, perhaps increased with the growing influence of radical left-wing groups. Yet, regardless of the effects on growth, it seems like taking care of your people should trump investing in growth, to some extent.