Munnar

One of the most beautiful and relaxing parts of our time in Kerala was heading up the mountains to the tea plantations and spending a night in the hill station of Munnar.  The cool mountain air was a lovely relief after so many sticky days.  We were pleasantly surprised that the state-run hotel was quite nice, and a few of us got to eat french fries!  Most importantly, since we arrived before sunset, everyone had some free time to themselves.  This all came at the point in the trip where people usually need a break–from the hectic pace of travel, from the parade of foreign buffets, from the formula of a group trip, and from the inside of our (admittedly swag) bus.

I went for a walk with Gaia and Meruschka, eventually coming across about half of our group at one time or another.  I enjoyed moving at our own speed and in such small numbers.  It always relaxes me to be able to shoot without a group either waiting for me or constantly suspicious that I could possibly find a shot they didn’t.  The results aren’t exactly stellar, but shooting always helps to clear out the cobwebs, which is exactly what I needed after a long day on the bus.

Like everywhere else in Kerala, multiple major religions were present at every turn.  As we moved farther north, the increasing influence of Arabs and Islam was comforting.  I love hearing the call to prayer, especially at sunset, and I found the influenced version of Kerala food to be fantastic.  I think we all found ourselves wishing we could stay in Munnar longer, but perhaps the reality is that we were just starved for some sunshine and free time off the bus.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

A Day with the Masters: Kalamandalam School in Kerala

We had the opportunity to visit Kalamandalam dance school in Kerala.  The school teaches over 20 different disciplines, including several types of dance, theatre, makeup, drumming, and singing.   There are 60 teachers and over 200 students in those 20 disciplines, and several of the current teachers were students themselves.   The school itself is funded by the state government in an attempt to preserve local traditional arts.  Several of them died out before they could be saved, as many artforms were practised only by specific families in certain geographical areas and were not passed on when family members lost interest or died out.

Students take regular school courses in addition to lesson in their given discipline, usually attending for six years.  It takes 8 to earn and undergraduate degree, and several more for a PhD.   The program is residential, with students living together nearby in a dorm-like Spartan atmosphere.  Classes can start as early as 4 in the morning in order to fit in the necessary hours to practice their discipline, attend standard classes like math, and complete their homework.

In another time period, the arts primarily belonged to the upper class, meaning that only those from certain castes could participate.  They also were only performed in certain areas at certain times, and did not tend to be open to the general public.  This modern, public revival and preservation of the arts has democratized this aspect of culture, allowing all Kerala people (as well as foreigners and other Indians) to participate as well as view these arts forms.  Several of these types of performance are  classified as part of the World Heritage by UNESCO.   It’s great to see the government taking an active role in preserving culture and combatting yet another manifestation of the caste system.

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Archaeology in Kerala

P J Cherian
P J Cherian

The other day in Pattanam, central Kerala , we had an amazing opportunity to see an archeological site in progress and meet with the site’s director.  I’ve seen many artifacts uncovered by archeologists, especially in Egypt, but this was my first chance to visit an active site.

The site was first excavated due to some surface findings, with digging starting in 2007.  The site now includes 4 acres of land with nearly 45 separate trenches in a heavily populated area.  All but one of the trenches have produced artifacts thus far.  The effort is lead by P.J. Cherian, the Director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research.  The team is made up of 20-25 locals, which a rotating cast of visiting team members, including 12 people coming from Oxford next week and 4 or 6 coming from Australia in the next few weeks.  The excavation is mostly funded by the Kerala state government, and won’t be displayed publicly for at least a year.

Pattanam trench, 1 of about 45.
Pattanam trench, 1 of about 45.

Cherian said one of the biggest obstacles to his line of work in India is a lack of interest and education among the population.  In the words of his son, “why do you need the history of 2000 years, isn’t 200 enough?”  Of course finances are also an obstacle, and it was clear his focus is on the research (at least for now) more than the eventual display of these artifacts.

This artifacts from the site go back as far as the Iron Age (1000 BC), covering 90 generations over 2,000 year period.  When speaking about the significance of the site, Cherian said this site yielded 4 million pieces of pottery–previously, only 700 pieces had been found throughout all of India.  Within the historical context, it has long been known that there was a major international port city in the area, but historians didn’t know its exact location.  The presence of artifacts from Mesopotamia, the rest of India, pre-Islamic Middle East including what is now Yemen and Oman, and Europe make him confident that this is that trade city.  The oldest layers contained evidence of regional travel, with successive layers containing evidence of trade from farther afield.

The sign that caught my eye
The sign that caught my eye

Towards the end of our visit, we went to the office/museum to see some pieces that have been unearthed so far.  On one of the signs, I noticed the term “feminist archeology” referenced and of course my interest piqued.  I asked Cherian about the term, and he responded that it refers to archaeology that tries to imagine the worlds of women and children.  He said, “We never imagine women when we undertake archaeology.  We just think of men, even today, because it is a male-dominated patriarchal society.”  In his words, this type of archeology attempts to answer the question, “where were your women, what were they doing?”  I’m glad that these questions are now being pursued by archeologists and that their absence from traditional archeology is being addressed.  However, it is a bit pathetic that women and children have historically been ignored by the field (and many others), and I find realities like this are the reason we need a term like feminism (as about to “humanism” or “equality”): the generic terms that sound inclusive have historically been exclusive, and that needs to be recognized if it is to be remedied.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Welcome to the Monkey House

The other morning I woke up early to a crazy noise.  After trying to sleep through it for a while, I realized that the monkey-like sounds were actually coming from monkeys, and went to get a couple of pictures.  Edgar tells me that these monkeys are more rare than the smaller grey ones that have been all over the town of Thekkady (including reading the newspaper this morning.)Image

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Later on at the hotel near the Periyar Tiger Reserve, we got to get up close and personal with some of the smaller, bolder grey monkeys.  While they are certainly cute, they are feisty and territorial animals, stealing food and water bottles, chasing people around, and generally causing mayhem.  One got into a fellow blogger’s room and made a mess of the place.  If you get too close, they bear their teeth aggressively, and it is clear that if they bit you it would hurt like hell.

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For some reason this guy thought antagonizing the monkeys was a good idea.
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Here, they keep the people in cages…at least while they’re eating.

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Cruising the Kerala Backwaters

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Houseboats before launch

Kerala is a low-lying state in the South of India, on the West coast.  A long skinny strip, Kerala seems to be more water than land, including rivers, lakes, and the Arabian Sea.  All of these bodies of water are collectively known as the backwaters, a term that apparently has a connotation of beauty and serenity here, unlike in the US.  We are never far from water, and have so far gone on an afternoon boat ride and spent the night on houseboats.

Dina shooting the sunset
Dina shooting the sunset
Sunset on the backwaters
Sunset on the backwaters

For a long time, the quickest way to get around Kerala was by water.  However, roads and cars eventually came to God’s Own Country.  With the boats no longer being used, that way of life (and all those jobs) were going to go by the wayside.  The story is that backwater cruises were conceived as a way to maintain jobs and keep those (repurposed) boats in the water.  Personally I’m curious how much this has actually benefits individual workers, since it seems like there are just a few companies that now own all the boats and hire a couple of guys to drive the boat, cook the food, and cater to guests.  Of course they do have access to tips, but I would love to learn more about the level of truth to the claim that backwater cruises are “like a form of social welfare.”

Inma diving in
Inma diving in

For our houseboat adventure, we were spread across 11 different boats, and spent the day lazily cruising through the backwater.  It was common to see other, smaller boats ferrying cargo or  people.  Along the banks of the river were women doing laundry and people riding bikes.  Bicycles are the land-based transportation method of choice in areas that border the water since the paths are so narrow.  Auto rickshaws (also known as tuk-tuks) are also around, and seem to be about the widest thing that could possibly scoot around the area.

Rutavi enjoying our afternoon boat ride
Rutavi enjoying our afternoon boat ride

The service on the houseboats was so good as to be overwhelming, something I find to be a common thread in this area.  No one who works in tourism has allowed me to do anything myself, whether it be to pour milk in my tea, carry my own luggage, or open my own beer.  This is nice, of course, but I feel awkward about how attentive everyone is when I could easily do these things myself and they have so much else to do.  If you’re looking to relax on the water, this is certainly a great way to do it.  The boats all dock overnight, which allowed us to snap the sunset and hang out together all on one boat.

If you want to hear about a cheaper, alternative method to see the backwaters, check out a post from Emanuele, one of the other KBXers, from his first trip to Kerala.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Outside Padmanabhaswamy Temple

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Outside Padmanabhapuram Palace

I’ll be posting about the Palace itself later, which I loved, but for now here are a few images from the surrounding streets.  ImageO

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Living it up in the Hotel Kerala

For our first day of touring we were shepherded from one luxury hotel to the next in Kovalam.  Luxury is not how I roll, and I am not interested in writing about a place I didn’t actually stay.  The staff was all very nice, our lunch was delicious, and I chose to pass my time by getting to know my fellow bloggers (mostly by talking about how much the place was not our speed) and by chatting with people who worked in the various hotels.  There’s not much to say of substance since not much happened, but here are some of my best images of the day.  I didn’t notice until I went to post them how much saffron features in almost every image.

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Sunrise at Uday Samudra in Kovalam

I’ve never been very good at relaxing (or at resorts), so waiting around at UDS waiting for this trip to start has me a little stir crazy.  After spending so much time yesterday reading, sleeping or in the pool, I had to do something that felt productive today.  When I realized I was definitely done sleeping at 6 am, I decided to go see what was shaking at sunrise.  Today marks the start of the official program, so I hope to have more updates coming soon.

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Kerala Blog Express, pt 3

If you haven’t yet, read part 1 and part 2 of this series in order to get caught up on how my journey to Kerala, India came about.  

This trip will be different for me in several ways. First and foremost, I will not know the language at all. The closest I’ve come to his was in the Gaeltacht in Ireland (where English could still be heard, and I had a guide) or in Turkey (where I couldn’t eavesdrop on local conversations, but my English, French and Arabic were more than enough to understand others and make myself understood.)  I will be accompanied by representatives of Kerala Tourism who speak English so I am sure all official events will be translated for me, but the window for spontaneous local interactions outside if the mold has gotten that much smaller. This means I will have to devote more energy than usual towards putting myself in a position to see beyond the veneer and meet regular people.

Speaking of the veneer, this trip will be quite unlike what most people experience in India. For one thing, I will be in the richest state in all of India, a place where even major cities feel small and familiar. There will be less crime, fewer people, and a generally different vibe than most people associate with the subcontinent.  Beyond that, I am going to be on a government-sponsored tour with the intent of promoting tourism. Their goal is for me to have a wonderful time and tell everyone in the world about it, which means that they have a vested interest in keeping any unpleasantness away and keep everything in line. That being said, I’m used to state-sponsored trips and funding the real beneath the veneer.  

I plan on talking about their attempts to keep the veneer intact. That’s their job and there’s nothing wrong with that, but my job is to dig deeper and be upfront wig my audience about all my experiences.  Additionally, in my opinion, the logistics of being on a sponsored trip are a major part of this experience, so you can expect to hear about them, good and bad.   I feel that transparency is the least I can offer to all of you who are not only readers, but supporters who voted and promoted me into this trip in the first place.  

In light of that, here’s another dose of transparency for you.  Many people have been asking me what it means for the trip to be sponsored.  Answer: they’re paying for me to be there.  But how exactly does that work?  I don’t have all the details yet (that seems to be the trip motto) but here’s what I know so far:

What Kerala Tourism is paying for:

  • Accommodations
  • Meals
  • Half of the cost of my round-trip flight, up to 700 USD (to be reimbursed)
  • On the ground transportation (coach bus)
  • Transportation to and from the airport
  • Entrance into various attractions

What I will be/have been paying:

  • Personal expenses like souvenirs and booze
  • If I were traveling solo before or after, that would be on me.
  • The other half of the round-trip airfare
  • My medications (ugh, antimalarials, how I loathe you)
  • My visa (10 year, multiple-entry tourist)

I mentioned that not only do I think the mechanics of a sponsored travel blogging trip are interesting, but I feel I owe it to my supporters to be really up front about everything, since I wouldn’t be going on this trip without all of you.  To that end, while I have said thank you in person, on facebook, and via text to everybody who let me know they voted or promoted me, I’d like to send all my supporters a little slice of India in the form of a postcard as a way to say thank you.  So, if you supported me and would like to recieve a postcard from my trip, send me your address!  You can use facebook, DM on twitter, text me, or if you don’t actually happen to know me all that well (internet strangers and future in-laws, I’m looking at you!)  you can email it to me at harrington [dot] delia [at] gmail [dot] com.  I’m looking forward to getting to thank you all personally and to navigating the Indian postal system!

Some people have voiced concerns that this trip could be an elaborate hoax, or could go wrong in some way.  Honestly, most trips can and do go wrong in one way or another, and that’s often when they’re the most interesting.  I’m quite used to getting myself out of tricky situations at this point, so I don’t think there’s much I can do other than hiding my emergency cash and keeping my head on a swivel.  I also think worries like this overstate the safety and predictability of other kinds of travel.  A big university name can do a lot of things, but it can’t change whether or protect against pickpockets, no matter how reassuring the study abroad website is.  And you wouldn’t want that, anyway.  Life without complications and intrigue would be completely boring.  Personally, I think it’s when we assume nothing could possibly happen to us that we are most at risk.  That’s largely formed from my experiences and those of people I know, that most  thefts abroad (and at home) happened when people were in traditionally safe tourist situations and let their guard down because of it.

Of course, if someone were to run a scam or otherwise mess with us, doing it to 27 people who spend their time writing on the internet is a terrible idea.  What, like we’re not going to tell everyone about it, complete with pictures and video?  I actually think most businesses and employees we encounter will be bending over backwards in hopes of a good, high-traffic review, to the point that all our reviews will need to be taken with a grain of salt since I doubt we’ll be treated like average, anonymous travelers.  If something weird does happen, I can always just leave.  I could fly back home, hang out with the other KBXers or go find Janine or several of the other amazing people in nearby areas who have offered to put me up if I come through their way.  After all, life is a grand adventure or nothing, and I’m going to choose the grand adventure every time.

Now you guys know everything I know about this trip.  I fly out of Logan on Friday evening, stopping in JFK and then Dubai.  I’ll be posting short updates to instagram and  twitter until I get my hands on some wifi, when I’ll be able to update this blog and my brand spanking new facebook page.  If you are interested in my writing (here or otherwise), photography, or travels, please consider liking the page.

See you on the other side!

Top image is via Kerala Tourism