Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Kerala, India 7/21 - 7/23

Our last stop in India was Kerala, which lies in the country's southwest.

See an even closer view of our interactive map.

We spent the first day at Fort Kochi, a fishing town that was once colonized by Portugal in the 1500s. As a result, the town today is mostly Christian, which surprised us as we had not previously seen Christan Indians. Another result is the high literacy rate of almost 95%, thanks to all the Christan missionaries.

We stayed at the Sajhome Guesthouse, which is similar to a bed and breakfast or homestay. The guesthouse is where the owner Saj lives and rents out a few rooms of his home. He took care of us and explained some of the area's history and culture.
Sajhome guesthouse.

Following Saj's advice, we visited the fish market, where fishermen sell the day's catches consisting of a large variety of fish including trouts, lobsters, and shrimps. The vendors were proud of their fish and wanted Quarup to smell them to prove that they were very fresh. At the time Quarup was perplexed because he knew very little about fish and could not smell anything. But we later learned that is exactly the sign that the fish was fresh and had never been frozen.
Traditional Chinese fishing nets still in use.
I want that one!
Note the fresh catch is not cooled or frozen.

After choosing a good selection of fish, we were escorted to a nearby restaurant where we paid a few bucks to grill our newly acquired fish. They skinned the fish, deveined the shrimp, and cooked everything with flavorful Creole-like spices. This turned out to be Quarup's favorite meal in India and definitely one of the best seafood dishes of his life.
Our newly acquired fish grilled at a nearby restaurant.
Grilled to perfection!

At night, we checked out a collection of performances at the cultural center. The main performance was Kathakali. It is a local form of acting where each thoroughly painted actor in elaborate costume makes a lot of funny faces and hand gestures. A few people play music using traditional instruments but there are no audible dialogues. All the communication is done through facial expressions and hand gestures. The other performances included martial arts and traditional dancing.
Kathakali, the show of facial expressions and hand gestures.
Martial arts performance.
Quarup with a warrior that needed to shave.

We also spent some time in the cultural center museum, where they explained some of the traditional local crafts.
Quarup tried pottery.
It turned out to be very difficult.
Guess which one he made.

Next morning we took an hour long cab ride south to Allopey. It is the starting point of ours and many other backwater tours. We reserved a tour and overnight trip in the backwaters of Kerala in a traditional houseboat. We splurged and reserved a luxury boat. When we checked in at Lakes and Lagoon's Houseboat office, we were informed that they set aside their best houseboat for us - the honeymoon houseboat. When we arrived at our houseboat just before 11AM and were amazed by how beautiful it was.
Our houseboat.
Check out the video of our houseboat's interior.

Each houseboat has a crew of at least three people: a driver, a cook, and someone to help with anything else needed. We were greeted by our crew with fresh coconut water, local snacks, and a flower lay. We felt like glamorous honeymooners. We set off right away, heading away from town towards the small villages in the backwaters. We stopped occasionally to visit villages and saw along the shores rice fields, children playing, men building houseboats, fishing, and women washing laundry at the edge of the water.

The summer is their off season so there were not many boats in the backwaters. We occasionally passed boats and gave them friendly waves hello (especially if there were kids on-board). Laure would always ask the driver how many rooms each boat had. Every once in a while we would spot a two story houseboat with six rooms. We learned that a few boats even have pools!

Our tour package included an opportunity to explore the smaller rivers via a traditional canoe with a local guide. It was hard work but worth the extra effort to see. For lunch and dinner we were served freshly caught fish along with other local dishes on the boat. For breakfast the following morning, we had local breads and fresh fruits.

Enjoying coconut water on the boat.
Canoeing on the backwaters.
Villages along the shore.
A local family invited us to visit their home.
Sunset from the boat.

Our boat returned to its dock at 9AM and we were sad to leave the houseboat and our wonderful crew. We could not have planned a more relaxing and enjoyable final stop in India than staying in the backwaters. Here are a few more pictures from our stay in Kerala.

Because our long series of flights back to San Francisco would start at 10 in the evening, we hired a driver for the day to show us around. We relaxed at two different beaches, caught a showing of Batman The Dark Knight Rises, and filled our stomachs with as many local fish dishes as we could. Our flight back to SFO was quick and stress free - not counting a connecting flight in Mumbai, which nearly made our heads explode.

Alas, our amazing trip came to an end. We enjoyed visiting the different regions and people in India. We especially liked how each region feels like its own country with its own culture, language, and even religions. We were also honored that our Indian friends took care of us and motivated us to explore their country. We are already thinking of places to visit during our next trip to India.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Leh, India 7/14 - 7/18

While eating dinner in Bangalore with the Google team, Quarup's coworkers kept insisting that he should take a few days off to visit the city Leh in the Himalayas. They told us that this was the best time of year to go because during much of the year it is covered in snow. After a couple hours of convincing and a few drinks, we were sold. We booked tickets online next morning.

We departed Friday evening for our long trip to Leh. Because the winds over the Himalayas become more unpredictable as the day progresses, flight only depart and arrive in Leh early in the morning. This meant we had to layover in Delhi for the evening and take a 6AM flight to Leh the following morning.
Our flight route to the Himalayas.
We found it interesting that the borders in India's northern region
become dashed.
Our first sight of the mighty Himalayas.

The city of Leh is in the Jammu and Kashmir region in the Himalayas, a disputed area between India, Pakistan, and China. Although there is prominent military presence, Leh itself is safe to visit and has not seen violence in recent years. Its beautiful mountains and Tibetan Buddhist culture draw many Indian and international travelers to this area during the summer.
See an even closer view of our interactive map

Our friend Manu Garg set up our accommodations at a very nice hotel (The Oriental Hotel and Guest House) owned by some of his good friends. The peaceful hotel is located at the edge of the city and had a stunning view from our room. The stunning view came at the painful price. It involved climbing four flights of stairs at 11,562 ft (3,524 m) above sea level! Quarup had to take breaks at each floor level to stop the pounding in his head. The thought of passing out did cross his mind.
Once we made it up to our room, we didn't want to leave.
Prayer flags and stupas from our bathroom window.

We were advised to spent much of the first day sleeping and relaxing to help our bodies acclimatize to the high altitude. Considering our flight arrived at 7AM, taking a nap was not disputed. Acclimatization typically takes a couple days before one's body can extract normal levels of oxygen from the thin air.

By the evening we had enough strength to explore the city by foot. We heard some people saying "juleh" (pronounced "joo-lay"), which is a friendly word in the local language that means hello, goodbye, how are you, thank you, or you're welcome.

We walked through the busy markets with many shops owned by Tibetan refugees that immigrated to India during Tibet's conflicts with communist China. As a result, Leh is largely shaped by Tibetan culture, which fortunately includes cool prayer flags, local crafts and awesome food.
The city center of Leh.
We're not big shoppers but we couldn't say no to these handwoven Tibetan wool socks.
Thukpa (a local Ladakhi soup). Quarup's favorite dish.
Momos (local steamed dumplings). Laure's favorite dish.

Next day, we hired a driver to take us to a three Buddhist monasteries; Lamayuru, Alchi, and Likir. These small communities built on high mountains are comprised of monks and nuns dedicated to preserving and teaching Buddhism. The drive to all three monasteries was long and the combination of unpaved road and unique scenery made napping difficult. With the exception of gardens in scattered towns, the landscape was mostly barren with calmness unlike any other place we had been. These mighty mountains were once the ocean floor and they still do not contain enough nutrients to sustain shrubbery. The sky was vivid blue due to the lack of atmosphere.
Driving up to Likir as the sun was setting.
View from Likir.
Finding inner peace.

The colorful prayer flags represent the natural elements and promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. It is believed that the wind carries prayers and blessings from the flags to everyone around the world. Such is the all-embracing nature of Tibetan Buddhism.
Alchi prayer flag pathway. Our favorite monastery from the visit.
Laure's favorite path.
Rug's favorite too.

Tibetan Buddhists spin prayer wheels clockwise to accumulate wisdom and merit, and purify negativities.
Getting rid of any lingering bad karma.
Giant prayer wheel = the accumulation of a lot of wisdom?

On our next day, we hired a driver to take us to Khardung La Pass at 17,582 ft (5,359 m). The locals claim this is the highest motorable pass in the world; Wikipedia begs to differ. Either way, the views were amazing and it was the highest elevation either of us had ever been. At the top, we had a few cups of tea before Quarup mountain biked halfway down and got a flat tire.
Looking back down towards Leh, half way through our hour long drive up.
The best 20 cent tea in town.
No helmet! Laure's praying that Quarup makes it down in one piece.
Quarup owned the road. He caught up to a motorcycle group.
He's just behind the 6th motorcycle.

That evening, we climbed the steps of the hill next to our hotel to see Shanti Stupa, which holds relics of Buddha and is famous for its panoramic views. At the top we enjoyed tea and a beautiful sunset on the mountains.
Fresh ginger lemon tea, Quarup's favorite.

On our last day, we went white water rafting on the Zanskar River (level 3+), where we met other travelers from around the world. Our international raft included an Indian couple from Bangalore, two guys from Czech Republic, a girl from Montana, a girl from Canada, and our Nepalese raft leader. The air temperature was hot at about 35C but the water in the river coming from the Himalayas was really cold at 8C! Good thing they provided everyone with wetsuits for rafting and a warm lunch after.
Quarup was captured by another raft.

For our last night we had dinner at Chopsticks, a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant. The prices were fair, the food was excellent and the large tables with friendly atmosphere encouraged mingling with new people. We joined a table with travelers from the US and Australia. You would have never been able to guess from their modesty that they had just gotten back from a five week climbing/mountaineering expedition deep in the contested areas of Jammu and Kashmir. They had rented a couple of horses to carry all their gear and set out into the Himalayas without a guide.

On our last day we learned the Dalai Lama would be flying into Leh as we would be flying out. If only we had stayed an extra day, we could have seen him speak in person. Maybe we'll catch him on our next trip. Until then, juleh.
Last view of the Himalayas.

Here are some more photos of our trip.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bangalore, India 7/8 - 7/13 & 7/18 - 7/21

After one week in India, we felt we were getting the hang of things. We were getting used to the underdeveloped streets, sights of poverty, and cows on the road. We were ready for whatever Bangalore would throw at us.
Flying in India within more relaxing than flying within the United States.
The first of many personal drivers Quarup would have in Bangalore.

Thirty minutes from the airport, we experienced our first taste of culture shock. We had heard that Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India, but we weren't prepared for how similar they are. American cars were mixed in with the motorcycles, a lot of Indians were dressed in western clothes, large malls were advertising western clothing brands, and I even saw a Santa Cruz, California "Mystery Spot" sticker on a passing car (a popular bumper sticker in the SF Bay Area). Besides the auto-rickshaws and occasional cow, we started to feel like we were back in the Silicon Valley.

Our hotel was right across the street from a new mall.
Best of all, the mall had a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (an LA based coffee shop) inside!

Even the cows "refuel" at the gas station.

Each morning after Quarup and I enjoyed a complimentary hotel breakfast, Quarup's driver would drop him off at work and I would explore the city alone. Each day I would master skills like crossing the street (which looked more like a freeway) and haggling over fares with auto-rickshaw drivers. We would meet up each night for dinner and I would share my triumphs and failures with him. Here are a few more pictures from Bangalore.

See an even closer view of our interactive map.
Bangalore is known as the Garden city of India.
Young couples holding hands and cuddling on park benches are common sites in parks.
Typical traffic along MG Road.
The ceiling of a customized auto-rickshaw. This particular driver totally pissed me off.
Fish Spa pedicure.
The fish snacked on dead skin while I resisted the urge to laugh from the tingle.
Russell Market's fresh chickens.

My all-time favorite place was the KR Market. It was everything I wanted India to be; a bit exotic, a little grimy, large, and crowded. The flower section of the market made my heart skip a beat with excitement each time I visited - and yes, I went more than once. People were yelling trying to sell their goods, it was so packed with people that bags needed to be carried on top of their heads, it was hot, and the fragrant colorful flowers added to the excitement. As a surprise to Quarup (and as an excuse to buy something at the market), I bought several strings of flowers to decorate our hotel room in celebration of our four year dating anniversary. I spent four US dollars on several bags of flowers and felt pretty proud of myself. My driver told me he could have gotten a better deal - oh well.
This place was a nice change from the high end new malls in Bangalore.
Individual flowers sold by weight.
Individual flowers are hand strung and sold by the arm length.
A calm corner of the market.
Happy Four Year Dating Anniversary.
The main point of traveling to the other side of the world was for Quarup to get to know his Bangalore Google teammates. They were a lively group that wanted to show Quarup a great time and encourage him to get to know more about their country.
One of the restaurants where we had dinner with the Google team.
A true hidden gem only steps away from the busy road.

Google Bangalore trying to convince Quarup to take a few days off to visit the Himalayas.

We were invited by one of Quarup's coworkers Piyush to his house for a home cooked traditional Indian meal. Piyush's wife, Shaily prepared us a wonderful spread of vegetarian dishes. 
Shaily, Piyush, and their son.
Shaily giving us a tour of her kitchen.
Laure couldn't take her eyes away from her plate long enough for a photo.

Our friend Sidharth from Delhi connected us with a friend Nikhil and his fiancée Natasha. On our last two nights in Bangalore, we went out on double dates to some of Bangalore's delicious local restaurants. We had a great time chatting about traveling and sharing stressful stories about wedding planning, which is a universal topic among young couples. After three weeks in India and cruising around town with new friends, we started to feel like locals.
Gulab jamun for dessert. There was always something new to try.
At Bangalore's local favorite ice cream shop, The Corner House.