Thursday, January 18, 2007

Alice Coltrane, RIP

Jazz pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane died earlier this week. I'd be remiss not to note her passing. Plenty of others -- even Pitchfork, surprisingly -- have said what can be said about her life and work better than I can express it. Whatever the quibbles with her legacy and relationship with John Coltrane and his music -- and despite her status as somewhat of a pariah to much of a jazz community that long lost touch with innovation and the jazz spirit -- her work lives on, and much of it was transcendental in a way I think her husband would have appreciated and supported.

NPR obit & re-broadcast of segment on "Translinear Light"

NY Times obit

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Meenakshi Temple and Sticky Last Day in India

Hello friends,
Amidst the good news that the Ravens and Cowboys are out of the playoffs (and we're hoping the Patriots bow out, for the trifecta of hateable franchises to be knocked out of the postseason), this will be the last you'll be hearing from us in India. We board a British Airways flight to London Heathrow at 4am Monday (5:30pm Sunday, EST), wait it out a few hours at LHR, and then we make our sleepy return to New York, home around 4pm.

On the whole, our stay in Madurai was pleasant and our return ride in a second-class AC sleeper uneventful, if cramped.

Jenny did come down with a bit of food poisoning that had her reeling Saturday morning, but thankfully she recovered enough for us to go visit the city's gigantic Meenakshi Temple (you can see its four towers in the Madurai skyline photo in a previous post). It is quite a sight to take in.

South India is famed for its Hindu temples and it's really quite a privilege to get to them. As with many religious places, some parts are off-access to people who aren't followers of the faith, but there is still much to be seen. An obvious contrast is how much commercial activity surrounds the temple. Where Western religions generally hide any semblance of connection with the worldly and the economic, here these aspects of life are intrinsically linked with the temple. Markets selling religious trinkets and icons, jewelry, and even knock-off Nike gym bags and toys are within the outer walls. Here's Jenny buying some bracelets:

Even so, this was a surprise:

More temple shots:

In addition to praying to the god of their choosing, Hindus will dress and decorate the statues of gods in the temple and take a blessing:

Jenny being blessed by a trained temple elephant:

And yesterday we finally made it to Apollo 96 "bar to have world's performed light and sounds," the once-proud Madurai experiment in retro-future leisure. As they say, "make a happy flight to Venus in Apollo 96." Its 76,000 diodes seem to have lit better days, which was pretty much in keeping with the apparent downturn of Hotel Supreme (again, we'll let Rough Guides off the hook this time). I did manage a decent (or at least strong) beer though, and there were a good few Westerners in there smokin', drinkin', and killin' time. Note the triangular door; however, their airlock was broken.

Sunday our train pulled into Chennai-Egmore stati0n, and our friend Feroz met up with us there to help us catch a cab. Even after two weeks, it's a bit startling how much you can be looked at as a dollar sign (or Rs- if you want to be literal). Though we make painfully clear we're not interested in buying things or catching a ride, every available driver or hawker is interested in giving it a shot. It was nice to have him there to help us out at such an early hour, not knowing in detail the way back to Harjit and Ritu's.

So upon arrival this AM, we re-connected with our bag, which was easy because it was sticky and mildewey, as were some of the contents. What a wonderful surprise! We cheerfully did two loads of laundry and washed the bag over and over, and will be thanking British Airways ever so much for handling this matter so deftly and capably. Veins will not explode from our necks when we meet their personnel tomorrow. No, of course not.

Thanks for reading, fellow travellers. Wish us a safe sojourn that includes the safe and clean return of our luggage, with us, tomorrow, in NYC. We're looking forward to getting home so much that I actually woke up on the train from a dream about chocolate cupcakes, drooling Homer Simpson-esquely. No joke. Best to you all. And for those who have inquired: yes, this blog will continue. This trip has been a great opportunity for re-launching it, and we hope you've enjoyed keeping up with us.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Photo catch-up and Madurai pt one

First are some photos to accompany yesterday's blog. These two are from Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

We saw some majestic elephants, before our wildly excited tour-mates decided to scare them away. Periyar could have hired a guide to get people into some nature-tour etiquette.

Monkeys, monkeys everywhere! They sure liked playing near the visitor centre. We held tightly onto our camera and ice cream cones in their presence.

This one was a little more contemplative, eating a leaf. He came pretty close to us.

The next day we took the 3-hour drive to Madurai. As we mentioned yesterday, the scenery was reminiscent of the American Southwest:

And these views are from the top of our hotel in Madurai, the Golden Park.

Today our travels brought us to Ramashwaram, yet another 3-hour drive. It is home to the Ramalingeshwara Temple, which was unfortunately closed to us. We did take some photos of the exteriors and outer hall. The outer temple is not painted brightly like many of the other temples in Tamil Nadu. From the looks of it, the inside was more colorful. Around here you can see people getting ready to drench themselves in water at each of 22 stations as part of their pilgrimage. We also spotted a monkey perched at the top of one of these towers!

The ceilings of the outer temple are painted with many of these round panels. As you can see from the second photo, the halls are pretty magnificent.

And the last stop of the day took us toward Adam's Bridge, the string of islands where India meets Sri Lanka.

This area plays a large part in Hindu mythology, and is home to a big shantytown that was another easy target for the 2004 tsunami. Poverty was evident to an extreme both there and in Ramashwaram; open sewers, every other building dilapidated or just made out of palm fronds to begin with, yet people carry on and figure out a way to make life work. We were accosted by several young Indians who wanted their picture with us, and to shake our hands. We obliged, of course. You see trucks like this overflowing with humans all the time.

We'll try to post after our temple visit tomorrow. Thanks again for reading! J&J

Thursday, January 11, 2007

All words for today!

Hi everyone. It's a photo-less blog for today as we're sans USB access to upload our photos. But we just wanted to drop in with a bit of an update.

We were mobile once again yesterday as the bandh was lifted locally and travel was possible. Little did we know we'd be travelling on the worst roads we've ever been on. The road from Munnar to Thekkady is about 80km (yes, we're getting used to the metric system, sort of; it's about 45-50 miles). But about 35km of that is composed of large rocks, foot-deep potholes, and sharp curves. That 35km takes about two hours to cover!

We finally made it to Thekkady thanks to our relentless driver Kabil, who, despite his preference for a sub-zero car interior and refusal to heed our semi-informed directions on occasion, is pretty much a saint. He brought us to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary / Tiger Reserve, where unfortunately, a tiger sighting is pretty rare. We did, however, spot a bunch of elephants, lots of monkeys, some wild boar and deer (yes, we know, you practically can't turn on your car in WNY without running over a deer -- not that exciting) and cormorants and herons. It was a nice trip and a pleasant boat ride through the lake, obnoxious teens blasting Hindi hits on their cellphone speakers notwithstanding. We also managed to pick up some locally-grown spices (a big part of Kerala's success).

Today we bid adieu to Club Mahindra and Munnar, goofy and fun as it was. Our route to Madurai included a truly awe-inspiring trip through the Western Ghats out of Kerala and into Tamil Nadu. It reminds of the American Southwest a bit, where there's just flat land for miles and then some truly majestic mountains right smack in front. The experience was not hurt one bit by the fact that the roads were actually manageable for more than 20 feet at a time. More monkeys were seen, including some really tiny ones holding tight to their mothers, and we had to halt a few times for some herds of goats.

Madurai on first impression is a bustling city, yet it feels far less overwhelming than Chennai -- certainly more breathable and finer-smelling. It's known for its temples, which we're going to check out in the next few days, and is close to tomorrow's day-trip in Rameshwaram, 20 miles away from Sri Lanka.

We also swapped hotels after about an hour and 200 rupees ($4-5). The Hotel Supreme ain't as Supreme as the otherwise super-reliable and informative Rough Guide to South India proclaims. We were so looking forward to its space-age night club, a pleasure we may yet indulge. The place we've moved to is new and clean and smells of fresh paint, which we can deal with, and it costs the same (roughly $30 a night).

Look for another entry with photos before we cast our fates to British Airways yet again. Until then, best to all of you and Happy Birthday to Matt! J&J.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

More from Kerala

Howdy, vicarious travellers!

First off, we never let you all know, our luggage did come, but British Airways failed to process several messages from us that we're no longer in Chennai. So, most of Jim's clothes and some various gifts etc. are back there while we're in Kerala. Oh well. We'll get our revenge.

We promised more from Kerala so we're going to try and catch up here. We last left off in Cochin. A little background on the city -- it was a big hub for the spice trade and features quite a diverse mix of cultures. Kerala in general is more Christian (30%), and Cochin at one time was home to a thriving Jewish population. Like dolts we visited on a Saturday, and our Jewish friends would note this is about the dumbest time to try and check out a synagogue (it was closed).

The Chinese fishing nets in the previous blog post are a remnant of similar cultural interactions, and are still in use and fun to watch. A bustling market around it includes places to buy and cook up the fish, right there.

It's also said that most of the best dining is to be found in hotels. We've had some decent meals in most of the ones we've visited and stayed at, but they have imported 'our' music to varying effects. At the Taj Residency in Ernakulam, we had the pleasure of watching "Cochin's Only All-Girl International Pop Band," a trio of ladies from the Philippines (three vocalist, one a synth wiz) sing: "Smooth Operator," "Hotel California," and other such hits. They weren't so bad that we couldn't get a laugh out of it, and it sure beat today's panflute version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," during which I died a slow death.

"Material Girl" count on this trip: 3.

We also wish to report that this blog is being written in the midst of a rowdy game of Bingo at the Activity Centre.

After Cochin we went on a thrilling 24-hour boat ride through the backwaters of Kerala. Here are some photos:

This was the sort of boat we rode on (though not ours, obviously). There were a good number of them on the water.

Jim looking like William Reid of Jesus and Mary Chain. Just like honey.

Jenny drinking straight from the coconut. She's a wild one.

A nice sunset and sunrise from the boat.

We also got to listen to Michael Jackson, Madonna, and some horrible ballad-y dreck before we requested that we hear nothing we could ever be assaulted with back home. Luckily we were obliged with some Malayalam hits of which the worst only had a cheesy guitar solo.

So that brings us to our current port of call, Munnar. It's a semi-terrifying 4-hour car ride from Cochin to here. Winding, curvy, one-car-width roads of varying reliability, and it's shared with buses, trucks, and the occasional auto-rickshaw that has no business driving at these grades. The city proper is a scruffy little place surrounded by the lushest, most beautiful tea plantations. The Zoroastrian family Tata owns most of the tea out here in the mountains. In addition to tea this family controls a lot of the automobile, telecom, and wireless communications in the country. And people get on the Waltons.

Saw this waterfall on the trip here.

As we hinted earlier, we're staying at this somewhat strange resort (Club Mahindra) and due to the bandh (strike) we were sort of cooped up here today. We were greeted by a serenader with a 'Givson' guitar and a harmonica in a creatively different tuning: "Welcome to your resort / You are here for fun." Today Jenny was treated to an Ayurvedic massage, an authentic Kerala experience. She recommends it (particularly if you enjoy being completely covered head-to-toe in oil by a total -though very nice- stranger). She also recommends a shower following.

It's not all been bizarre or oily. We had a rather nice 'soft trek: harder version' up the mountains with some excellent views and the thrilling experience of being in the midst of fast-moving clouds. If there's one thing this place does offer it is breathtaking scenery.

Pointsetta growing wild!

We are hoping to make it to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Thekkady tomorrow, with the bandh lifted. Then it's off to Madurai, which should bring its own different pleasures. Hope this finds you all well. You'll hear more from us soon. J&J.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Kerala and commies

Like peanut butter and chocolate, Keralans and progressive politics go together oh-so-good. They have one of the few democratically elected socialist governments in the world, a 99% literacy rate, and this on top of some of the most beautiful terrain we've ever seen.

Reminders of this political orientation as in the above photo abound here in Kerala, and we're actually sort of victims of it for the next day, where a strike due to the arrest of a beloved political figure is making it a bit wiser to stick to the resort area and avoid crowds and the indication of being unsympathetic to the cause. We don't feel unsafe, of course. We're not resort people (those of you who know us know this) but it was booked for us by our friends Harjit and Ritu, who were to be travelling with us but didn't make it due to health issues. It is in the midst of some strikingly beautiful tea country. We'll post phots of this soon.

In the interests of chronology, here are some shots from Cochin, our point of arrival in Kerala:

The Chinese fishing nets at the shore of the Arabian sea:

Jenny at this awesome cafe, the Kashi Art Cafe, a favorite for Westerners - us included. Great coffee, ethical presentation, fine atmosphere and mouth-watering chocolate cake!

Others are breathing down our necks to use the one computer here, so more pictures coming soon! Lots of love to you all,

India pt 3A

We've been enjoying ourselves too much to post a lot lately but thought it'd be nice to give you an update. Here's the first installment, wrapping up our last few days in Tamil Nadu.

One of our days was spent in Pondicherry, a former French colony with some amazing architecture and a lively temple. This elephant greeted us outside of it:

And here's some of the beautiful European architecture -- one of the homes near the Bay of Bengal and a French-language school.

We haven't really informed you all of how we've been getting around (more on that in the next post), but having a driver is a big asset and a pretty common one around here. Driving, as in most of the former British colonies, is on the left. That's fine. But the preponderance of auto-rickshaws, seeming absence of lanes, seatbelts without buckles (nobody uses them, even when they are in fact full seat belts as in the front seats), motorbikes carrying a family of four, and random cow crossings make driving something no sane foreigner would do in India.

Though our friend Harjit drives, his wife does not, so they have hired Feroz, a guy who seems to be about our age. He can hit the gas pretty hard and he knows his way around. He also speaks Tamil and we don't, so he proved to be immensely helpful during our stay in Chennai.
Also, when we were trying to get a prepaid phone card and didn't have the passport-size photo the store seemed to assume everyone possesses of themselves, Feroz whipped his out, and got the phone in his name for us. Awesome. We got to know him a bit despite the language barrier, and he shared his favorite music and movie stars with us.

Here's Feroz, along with some other random TN driving shots:

Elephant in the slow lane:

When the Bills win the Super Bowl, you can bet your ass we're going to "Dizzee World"!

Sort of like riding in the back of a pickup truck, if less NASCAR:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

India, installment 2

On day six here and still waiting for one of our bags. British Airways can go do some anatomically impossible things to themselves.

That's about how we feel in the mornings when waiting for the word, then we move on to enjoying our days. To some extent that's included picking up some new clothes, but we've tried to buy some things we can't get at home, or pieces that would be much more expensive back in the US and A.

We found out when we got here that the Chennai Open, the first ATP tennis event of the season, coincided with our visit. So, avid tennis fans and Rafael Nadal lovers that we (especially Jenny) are, we forked over the $1.25 (Rs50) for tickets. The total tab for snack, drink, tickets and auto-rickshaw home was a paltry $8! It's enough to make one use excessive exclamation points, especially when compared with the $30-plus it costs for one ticket to an event such as the US Open (with its admittedly more interesting field). In addition to the dreamy Nadal, we saw highly-ranked fellas such as Carlos Moya and David Nalbandian, the fiery Argentine who proceeded to lose his first-round match for some reason.

Some photos from the event:

The stadium

Jenny's new boyfriend. I can't compete with that.

We also made it to a terrific dance performance this evening at the Madras Music Academy, the first-such one ever held there. I'll report more specifics about it another time. I'm running up a tab of over 25 cents here at the Net Cafe so I have to keep this short.

A note to world-travellers: when you pack for a place that, on the whole, doesn't use toilet paper, bring it in your carry-on. We are sad to report that we have become TP thieves. Scenes of the crimes: upscale restaurants and hotels, shopping malls, etc. I am really beginning to understand the thrill of theft.

And here's our shower:

Random observation and accompanying photo #4569: In Chennai there are temples EVERYWHERE you look. Big, big ones like the Kapalishwara Temple (famous and not accessible to westerners, though yours truly had an 'in' last time), and smaller ones for any god you can think of, like this one:

Hope this finds you all well, and keep your fingers crossed for the arrival of a giant duffle bag to our doorstep in Chennai.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

India! (part one)

Drowsy and more than a little muscle-tired, we arrived in Chennai on December 30. We've had some ups (exciting tours of old temple ruins, over-the-top Bollywood films, and New Year's with new friends) and downs (mainly late-arriving luggage, but also some leftover travel-cold/sickness that's not helped by the poor city air).

For Jim, the trip has been a re-awakening of visual, sonic and various olfactory memories from his stay in the city in 2000. Jenny is experiencing this all for the first time, dusty roads, colorful signs, garbagey garbage, the real feeling of being in a country of a billion people, and more.

Here are some photos from the trip so far:

Street view from top of a restaurant in Chennai.

Jenny enjoying three firsts: the inaugural piece of chocolate cake of 2007, her first such dessert in India, and her first piece of Indian clothing (well, the first one she purchased here, anyway).

Jenny and our friend and host Ritu conversing near one of the temples at Mahabalipuram, just south of Chennai.

One of said temples.

The two of us near some sizable stones that are inexplicably balanced - another pic we have shows Jenny in front of a very large rock that would be rolling towards her if we lived in an Indiana Jones movie.

Sunset at the lighthouses at Mahabalipuram.

Shantytown laid to waste and being rebuilt in the wake of the tsunami, taken on the way back from Mahabalipuram.

Coming soon: tennis in Chennai, more dance and music, and most exciting: our trip to the southwest of India - Kerala!