Sunday, January 13, 2013

Final stretch in Kerala

We started our final two days by leaving Mangalore and entering the state of Kerala. We are a somewhat motley crew limping towards the end.
This morning we crossed into Kerala and the differences were obvious... the landscape is now thick and green; really tropical with wide waterways. The religion has changed from Hindu to Muslim. Gone are the colorful saris and the women are now dressed in full black.
 The men wear skirts (long or short).

And the wealth has increased dramatically... no more squatters beside the road. Houses have become fancy, multi-floored and decorated. And ... in an obviously desperate need to still express their adoration of color (since they have given up the colorful saris for plain black gowns).. the houses are all painted bright, gaudy shades...

What a difference just a few hours on the road can make.. it's like we've changed countries.

We are all looking pretty raggedy by now... the guys all have beards and we're downright scary by the end of each day.

We still draw a crowd whenever we stop... especially of schoolchildren. This group of girls were full-out giggly about getting their photo taken with me.

We are starting to see a lot of other Tuk Tuk teams on the road as we come into the home stretch. I wonder how many teams will actually make it to the finish line? We have to be on the road by 5:30AM tomorrow morning to hope to reach the end by dark... then straight to the party... and we fly out at 4:30AM the next morning.. so this will be our last few hours of sleep for almost 55 hours... off to bed quick.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Goa, Goa.... Gone

We have been out of internet service for the past few days so let me catch up. First, Goa is awesome. It's an astounding collection of hippies - old and young. It's been on my bucket list for years and I was so excited to finally get here. We ended up staying two days in Anjuna and even timed it just right to be there on Wednesday for the famous Anjuna flea market... miles and miles of color & trinkets and everything cheap that you could ever think of needing. And booths filled with buckets of spices of every color and smell. It was great sights and even better people watching. Savannah got a henna tattoo on her arm at one of the stalls.

For some reason my photos will not load in the right place tonight... so I've put them all at the end in the order of this blog... sorry

A quick observation: India's version of drip irrigation cracks me up.... a cut off coca cola plastic bottle with 2 small holes in the cap. Fill it with water. Your tree is drip irrigated all day.

We stopped at a fort town on the way into Goa and spend some time exploring ... Great views from the fort's walls of the bay below.

Then disaster struck.... India Delhi Belly (also known as unrelenting vomiting with diarrhea at the exact same time so you end up on the toilet with a bucket in your arms as everything comes back up both ways) swept through us like a Tsunami. It hit me first while we were all walking and playing cricket on the beach at sunset the first day after we left Goa. By 10 PM, we had to take Savannah to the hospital and by midnight Chloe was down for the count. Whatever parasite got ahold of us was having a field day. Savannah's vomiting got so bad (she was literally getting no more than 5 minutes break between attacks) that we woke up the manager of the VERY humble place we were staying that night and had him drive Savannah to the hospital .... And what a facility it was... there are no words to describe this place. Suffice it to say that rats and cockroaches are well-acquainted with it, every wall is black with mildew and mold, you are forced to remove your shoes to enter so - with every step - you are convinced you are inheriting some antibiotic resistant communicable disease and a night there at the "deluxe" hospital room plus 6 shots and 4 bags of IV drip cost 1800 rupees ($30). Savannah took one look at this place and started begging for an air ambulance .. but to say that we were in a remote part of the world would be a gross under-statement.. there is not only no air ambulance, there is no airport in sight. For sure no westerner had ever set foot in this "hospital." And yet the nurses - all dressed in plain pink saris (and of course barefoot) were kind and sweet and rubbed her feet and patted her head and tried their very, very best. The people here are so very nice. But there is really nothing worse than being sick when you are staying somewhere awful. The night Delhi belly hit we had ended up in a tiny town and got the last available rooms at a local hotel where some of us were staying in wood huts on stilts and others in concrete dorm rooms. It was right on the beach and a pretty setting but had no amenities, not even hot water. By the time dawn broke I had broken down, was flat out crying and freely admitted to Rainey that I had lost all sense of adventure (you'll be glad to hear that my spirit has since returned but I was beaten at that point). All I wanted was America OR an American-style hotel OR really any sleeping establishment with a name written in english and an actual bed (instead of a 2 inch slab of wadded up cotton on a sheet of plywood - which passes for a bed in any "local" or "indian" hotel) OR any place with real indoor plumbing (my wish list was steadily getting simplified as I got sicker and sicker).

After 24 hours of hell, we finally limped further south and gradually got to feeling better. We ended up in a town with a huge Hindu shrine and temple. Literally thousands of Indians are on vacation in this town today. The women are not allowed to wear swimsuits.. so they walk into the waves in full saris...!!!

We are now on our last few days... we cross the finish line in Kochin in just two days. So far our Tuk Tuks have held up great (no major issues... knock on wood) so we're hoping for an uneventful ending.. We have really been on some adventures over the past two weeks...Stay tuned for our finale...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Meandering through India

I have not written in a few days because I have been struggling with a head cold and tried to get to sleep - the past few nights - as soon as we finished dinner. Nothing serious - just annoying. We stopped at a pharmacy today and - after much charades - got some prescription cough mixture and a tablet decongestant. The total bill... for 2 prescriptions AND a tube of toothpaste ... $3.22. You'd add two zeroes to that price in the US plus need a doctor's visit and a prescription. Here's hoping our charades were understandable and I'm not taking anti-worm medication. To get caught up I'll just hit the highlights of the past few days. If you want more detail, read my sister Heidi's blog at (she's been doing a much better job than me of staying current).
The last few days have been amazing. We arrived in Mumbai from the North by hopper flight (easy peesy). The next morning we set out to see the city. We hired a tour group to take us all over so we could see the sites quickly (and with some explanation). We started the day with a tour of the Dharavi slums. Our guide was a kid who was born - and has lived all of his life- in that slum. He's now a university student, his english was excellent (he also speaks 4 or 5 additional languages - it's so humbling) and he was very open and informative about what we were seeing.

We started off in the industrial section where he showed us how aluminum is recycled, the slum bakery which supplies most of the expensive pastry shops in town with puff pastry (made with an extra flavoring of sweat as the men kneading the dough are working in 100+ degree weather and without gloves or hair nets or anything), the entire process of recycling cardboard, plastics, oil drums... you name it and it is cleaned, repaired, re-used or broken down and turned into something new in the slums. Every person works. There is less than 1% unemployment. The daily wage is $2.50 US. The conditions are horrendous but the sense of community is impressive. In this slum, Muslims, Hindus and Christians live and work together - side by side. There are 1 million people in an area half the size of New York's central park!!! It is impossible to describe the sights - and the smells. Let's just say that human feces is a common finding. It's stunning to appreciate that thousands more arrive every day because this slum life is better than the village life that they have where there is work at all.
After that rather sobering experience, we went to the house where Gandhi lived during the last few decades of his life. It is now a museum and even has a room filled with dioramas depicting the most important events in his life. Gandhi's principle philosophy was that no man should be discriminated against because of his religion, color of his skin or what caste he was born into. Basically: since we cannot control where we are born or who are family are, no- one should judge us for that. We can only control what we do with our lives and what we become. It is seems simple but it is really a core message of love / acceptance and the foundation of a peaceful life. To see - in one setting - all the ways Gandhi embraced that philosophy was inspiring.
Interesting fact that I did not know before: One of Gandhi's staunch supporters was a man named Nehru. His wife died when his only daughter was little so he brought his young daughter with him whenever he stayed / visited with Gandhi. Her name was Indhira Nehru. After Gandhi's murder, Indihra married a man whose last name was Gandhi (although he was no relation to Mahatma). Many say she married him only for his surname as she separated from his soon after the wedding. She became the prime minister of India in the 1980s - Indhira Gandhi - and was the first Indian leader to try and address the awful over-crowding through the use of public education campaigns on birth control. She used a symbol of FOUR monkeys to get her point across... see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.. and the fourth monkey had crossed arms over its crotch to symbolize restraint in the number of children. Sadly, we all know the end of her story... shot and killed by her own bodyguards.
Then it was on to the Dbhobi Ghats where men stand in concrete stalls -knee deep in dirty water all day - washing by hand thousands of pounds of hospital uniforms and bedding, hotel sheets and towels, household clothes etc. It is back breaking work. Every article is first scrubbed with large cakes of soap on a steel table, then the clothes are beaten against the concrete sides of the ghat to dislodge all dirt, rinsed, wrung out, hung to dry on rope lines on the roof (Segregated according to type and color of clothing) and finally ironed with an iron filled with hot coals (no electricity used). No one seems to appreciate that when you wash and rinse in water that is muddy brown, clean is not actually going to be the outcome. Washed - yes. Ironed - yes. Clean - no.

We then went for a walk in the hanging gardens. There was a whole busload of school kids on a field trip having lunch in the gardens. Whereas I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my lunch box, they all had .. you guessed it.. curry !!!

Next up, we drove by the Tower of Silence. The Tower of Silence is a holy place for Pharsees (not sure on spelling) where their bodies are taken after they die. For a few days, the body is cleansed and prayed over by the family within the Tower of Silence complex. Then the body is taken to a marble slat over a well, the bowels and torso are cut open and the body is left for the crows and vultures to dispose of it. You can see the Tower of Silence's location from almost anywhere in Mumbai because it's got a black cloud of circulating carnivorous birds above it.
We did quick stops at some of the historic buildings including Victoria Terminal (the main and central train station which 7 million people use each day: traveling from the suburbs for work). It has a new name (like Mumbai has replaced Bombay) but I can't remember it. The train station is like a English manor house ... rising out of the squalor of the city. What a conflict: whole families living on the streets and in the gutter right outside this stately mansion.

Then - just to really blow our minds - we had lunch at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel (one of the most expensive hotels in the world). We walked by the Dior and Prada stores in the lobby to go into the fancy restaurant and spend - literally - a year's salary for a man in the slums on lunch. (Shamefully, I must admit that the food was great). What a city of disparity... from gaudy wealth to startling poverty.
That afternoon - right after we got back to the hotel - our Tuk Tuks came driving in... fresh from a "tune-up" at a local mechanics. The boys had dealt - the evening before - with getting the Tuk Tuks out of the hands of the truckers (even refusing to pay the "as expected" ransom demands) and had taken them to a mechanic's shop for some much needed maintenance. I have to say, it was great to see them show back up... ready to set off for the rest of our trek.
We ended the day by going to a local cinema to see a real Bollywood movie. The ticket counter clerks could not imagine why we would be buying tickets for a Hindi-only movie and laughed and laughed when we said we were there to see the dancing. Quick fact... the cinemas sell a wide array of food including pizzas, wraps, full curries, popcorn and .. the best of all... warm corn (taken off the cob) and drizzled with butter, lemon juice and salt. You eat it with a spoon - so good !!! Our movie selection was "Daabang 2" - a completely over-acted action movie where the cops, bad guys and all random people in the street repeatedly burst into song and dance. There is also heavy audience participation as everyone in the theater talks back to the screen.
Sunday morning we set off early - to beat the Bombay traffic - and headed south. We had planned to put in a long, hard day and hoped to get to 260KMs. An hour outside of the city, RunAroundSue broke down.. dead, not turning on, nothing. With it being a Sunday, we were nervous we'd not get much assistance.. wrong again. First, a group of trucking clerks came running over from a trucking depot just across the road and called for a mechanic to come from his home to help. Then a man in a fancy car stopped to help. He told us he was a cop (and showed us his gun and badge to make his point... a somewhat alarming experience) and insisted on staying with us the 1 1/2 hour that it took for the mechanic to get there and fix Sue. Total cost... $8. The cop even drove down the road a bit - at one point - and brought back Chai tea and biscuits for us and refused to accept any money in return. People all around the world are surprisingly kind and generous. I hope to think I'd be as gracious. We even had another Tuk Tuk team stop and chat... a 3 man team from Australia. They've been doing 16 hour days to get down here (on the road by 5 AM and finding a place to sleep by 10 or 11 PM). We were all too embarrassed to say that we'd trucked our vehicles for part of the way... especially in the face of their dedication. But it was nice to chat with another team and hear their stories.
After another few hours on the road, a surprising find...we drove by an open air restaurant that seemed decent. We haven't had lunch yet on the open road as everything so far has been beyond dodgy. But there it was .... a normal looking place filled with people out for a Sunday drive. Very simple - and only Indian curries to choose from - but the food was outstanding. Spicy as hell (my mouth may never recover). We ate and ate and the bill was ridiculous. Just as an example, the cost for one large butter naan (a flat tortilla styled bread) was 21 cents.
The landscape is now so different than the north... greener, hillier, some rivers, less homeless, more people with shoes, towns (instead of villages) with booth-styled shops selling expired potato chips and hot drinks... altogether a more prosperous area.

And some amazing sites that you just wish you could capture on film: A flood of monkeys that jump into the road in front of you and stare you down refusing to move so you have to maneuver around them; a woman walking - miles from any sign of civilization - with 2 1/2 tons of bundled firewood on her head; dozens of school children beside the road who dance and sing and wave when we go by with delight as seeing something so unusual as white people in decorated tuk Tuks.

The roads were good enough that the girls drove again for some of the time... and my niece Savannah drove for much of one day (even though some of her stint was downright scary). She has nerves of steel. In the mornings, we drive through soft fog but it warms up quickly.

Last night we stayed at a very "humble" hotel right on the beach. Note to self... when an Indian hotel has the following on its website, expect less than luxurious accommodations: "comfortable," "casual, " "home-stay like quality." The place was not bad from the outside and was virtually alone on this bay, but the bed were thin pieces of foam on top of wooden boards and they provided no bedding beyond a coarse blanket. Luckily there was enough hot water dripping from the tap that you could collect it in a bucket and scoop the warm water over your head for a shower. We had fun walking on the beach ... a nice respite from being shaken, rattled and rolled in the Tuk Tuks.

And Chris lounged on the hammock after a heavy day of driving AND navigating.

Amazingly, at this place we ran into an incredible woman: Sandy Robson. She's an Australian kayak instructor who has decided to - on her own - retrace the path of a famous explorer and paddle from Germany to Australia. She started down the west coast of India a month ago and kayaked into our bay last night at sunset. Rainey got a great shot of her in the light.

We spent hours chatting with her and hearing about her adventures. And this morning we were part of her send-off party (which included almost everyone from the nearby fishing village - none of whom had ever seen a kayak before, far less a caucasian woman traveling alone in one). And we thought we were a spectacle. If you want to read more about her travels, look up her website: I thought I was adventurous but I've got nothing on this woman.

We've had three relatively easy driving days in terms of mileage although the roads have been awful and we've been winding our way up and down hills (I had no idea that India was this mountaineous, we'd excepted a flat coastal road). We're heading for a town in the state of Goa: Anjuna as there is a "you are 2/3rds of the way there" party by the Adventurists (the people who organize this rally) on Wednesday night in that town. We are planning on being in Anjuna by tonight as there's a big market there tomorrow and the girls want to shop and buy some memories from the trip. (All fingers and toes crossed for no engine trouble or breakdowns).

This little cutey has never seen anything as weird as us....

Friday, January 4, 2013

Lush hilltops to the sweat of Mumbai

With some shame but also great glee, I admit it, we have maneuvered around some obstacles and ended up getting to Mumbai much quicker than expected.
The problem started on our 250KM trip from Barmer to Mount Abu on Day 2. It took us 11 1/2 hours - almost double the amount of time we'd expected. We did not reach the foot of Mount Abu until almost dusk and then had to start an essentially straight-uphill climb after dark. It was the most harrowing experience of my life. The Tuk Tuk lights are weak at best and our windshields are almost opaque so to see anything at night is virtually impossible. The road up to Mount Abu is 497 hair pin bends and Indians apparently believe it is safest to overtake the car in front of you in the middle of those bends so you have no idea from moment to moment if you are going to crash into some huge lorry coming down the hills (with its bright lights on - just to blind you further). I imagined plunging off the side of the cliff to our death every second of the almost hour uphill. Thank God for the calm of the three guys who just put on their full concentration and tested their driving skills to the limit. Plus our poor Tuk Tuks were struggling... huffing and puffing and sounding downright pathetic. We all imagined that at one point we'd end up pushing one or more of them up the mountain. We all were giddy with hysteria when we finally made the top of the hill.
First thing the next morning we did the calculations and realized that - at our speed - we were never going to make the end of the rally on time. Plus, everything we really want to see is in Mumbai or further south. So we had Chris go talk to the hotel concierge who found us a truck shipping company and we hired a truck to drive the three tuk tuks (through the night) to Mumbai while we got a taxi to the nearest large town (Ahmedabad) and flew on a hopper flight Mumbai. That saved us 4 days of driving in the freezing cold north (where there is little to see or do). Loading the three Tuk Tuks into a single truck was a marvel of engineering and involved lifting each vehicle in and out of the truck three times until the approximately 72 people helping got the tail gate to close (including an elderly goatherder who was adamant that his plan was on earth would he know?... and several school boys who have clearly never driven a vehicle in their life but who also had strong opinions on the correct loading techniques). Shockingly, all three fit and headed off. We've gotten so attached to our vehicles that we were all sad to see them leave.... and crossed all fingers and toes for a safe arrival in Mumbai.
Having made that decision, we thus had some extra time to explore Mount Abu. Mount Abu which is a tourist destination for Indians. It's too far out of the way for Westerners but it's apparently very popular with local honeymooners. I can understand why, it is quite picturesque as it's a green hillside town built around a lake. Compared to where we have been the last few days, it felt like Shangri-La. We first walked around the town and through the market.
We were actually able to go into a store and buy potato chips and cookies and toothpaste (we have not seen a shop of any real description in days). We even found a cold Red Bull. Then we went to a Jain Temple complex of intricately carved marble temples. In fact, the temple took over a decade to complete and the workers were paid depending on how much dust they accumulated in their carving. So every worker carved as finely as he could to generate more marble dust. The stone is so thin in some places that it is almost translucent. They do not allow into the temple any cameras or menstruating women (yes, that's actually a sign at the front) so sorry - no photos to show. But here is me in the market area outside the complex.
We then had a lovely lunch as a nice restaurant in town where we ran into an elderly American man. He's been living in Mount Abu for the last 4 years. He was so excited to see English-speakers that he sat and chatted to us throughout the meal. He also told us what to see and do in town. We thus went out to the lake and took a ride on a tethered helium balloon which provided awesome views of the lake, the town and all of the surroudings.
It is hard to explain the colors of India. No matter how bleak and dusty and drab the surroundings, the colors are everywhere. And the children will break your heart.


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