Saturday, October 30, 2010

This, Too, Is India

On this trip, I decided that we should visit the state of Karnataka - more specifically the Kodagu (or Coorg) region.  It is at a higher elevation and isn’t heavily visited by tourists.  About a week before our arrival I began to plan, but soon realized that just getting the train tickets we’d need would be a daunting task.  This led me to contact an Indian travel agency despite my misgivings about entrusting someone.  I ran several ideas by Murugesh (the agent) and he quickly gave me estimates.  In the meantime, I discovered that our next-door neighbors wanted to go to the same area and they decided to come along.  The final itinerary was to travel to Mysore, spend one night there and then proceed to Coorg where we’d stay two nights.  Murugesh had originally made a suggestion of a hotel in Mysore that is of a higher class than we usually go with so I told him that I’d wanted to stay in The Green Hotel – it has some environmentally friendly features and gives its profits to charity.  Based on that he selected a homestay in Coorg that he thought I’d like.  It was then that I turned over all arrangements to him.  It was a great decision to make – we were picked up right outside the ship, given all our train tickets, driven to the station and led to our seats (okay, the last part was overkill, but it was part of the guide’s job so we went along with it).  We didn’t have to worry about a thing and the entire trip only cost us about $550 – the lack of headache was worth every penny.
We met our driver right outside the ship at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. train to Mysore.  It was a 7 hour ride, but we were entertained by constant visits from train staff providing passengers with water, then biscuits, newspapers, apple juice, coffee, tea, lunch, etc., etc.  The scenery was also interesting. 
We arrived in Mysore and were met right outside our train car by our driver who took us to a market which was supposed to be one of those “musts”.  It was colorful with conical mounds of dye being sold and an olfactory overload due to the jasmine, incense and essential oil purveyors. 
We found that the banana section was peaceful – no one is going to try to sell tourists 100 pounds of bananas:
It was also full of hawkers selling cheap anklets and sandalwood items.  Mysore is famous for its sandalwood and silk.  In the end, I purchased 15 anklets for approximately $8.  I was resisting the vendors who walked with me the entire length of the market trying to talk me into buying and finally one said he would sell me all he had for 400 rupees.  I gave in and said okay – they are a variety of styles and I’ve worn one and gave two to a student who wished she’d gotten one.  I am sure they will fall apart in no time, but they are pretty.  I joked with the vendor that I was going to go open my own shop. 
After fighting off offers of sandalwood fans, incense, boxes, trinkets, etc. we’d had enough and went to Chamundi hill to visit the Chamundi temple.  The temple is dedicated to the goddess Chamundi who defeated the demon buffalo, Mahishasura.  After that, we walked down a hill to see a Nandi bull (Shiva’s vehicle) carved in 1659 from a boulder.  He is 16’ long and 25’ wide.  The Nandi bull is one of my favorites!
We were exhausted after a long day of travel so we spent the evening having beer, appetizers and dinner at the hotel restaurant.  At the end, we asked to see their tandoor and they happily took us into the kitchen.  The hotel had a beautiful garden and the restaurant is on the far side:
The rooms were clean and the bed comfortable.  There were monkeys the following morning, but they left us alone:
After some shopping at the nice little hotel shop, we set out for the main course of our visit – Bel Home coffee plantation!  The 3 hour drive took us across the Mysore Plain into the Western Ghats.  For the last hour the road was very curvy and even when the roads weren’t winding, the driver wove across the road to pass auto-rickshaws, goats, cows, bicycles, pedestrians, large trucks, etc.  Both Debby (one of our traveling companions) and I were feeling green around the gills and were extremely happy to get to our destination.  The upside of that last hour was that it was beautiful driving up through the hills. 
We got to Bel Home in the early afternoon and were met by our hosts Ramollah and Vijai –two of the nicest, most hospitable people you can find.  Ramollah and Vijai are Kodava people – an interesting “tribe” found in the Kodagu or Coorg region.  Historically, they purchased their land back from the British who’d made them into coffee plantations.  They are a light-skinned people of unknown origin who have very different rituals and beliefs than those in surrounding areas.  For example, they worship nature and their ancestors instead of the idols worshipped by Hindus.  They eat a lot of meat – especially pork – and alcohol is not forbidden.  In addition, they are big field hockey players (many famous players are Kodavas) and are the only people in India allowed to carry arms without license.  They are a martial group and have had a strong role in the Indian military.  They aren’t out starting fights, but had to protect themselves and traditionally hunted a lot.  These days, they are very well-educated and are having a difficult time keeping the plantations in the family as children get degrees and move to cities to work.  I’m not sure what will happen to these beautiful plantations in the next generation. 
My Indian family:
They showed us to our accommodations – a building of about 80 years that used to house plantation workers and rice.  They had remodeled it into two bedrooms and two bathrooms.  It had a lovely front veranda where it was easy to spend time relaxing.
Ramollah and her assistant – an ancient woman who had been on the plantation for 60 years – had prepared a feast of Coorg food for us.  It was delicious and convinced us all that we had made the correct decision about what to do in India.  We had two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners at Bel Home and they were all excellent.  It was mild heat-wise, but very flavorful and featured a lot of exceptionally prepared vegetable dishes.  I’ve never had better beats, okra or eggplant dishes.  A pumpkin dish, in particular, was out of this world.  Of course, there were rice dishes and breads served with every meal.
Our time was spent walking the plantation, learning about shade grown coffee, looking at beautiful birds, spotting cool insects and other creatures, hiking with their dogs Tigger and Patch and visiting with our hosts, their children and his parents.  They provided us with a stack of books so we could learn more about the area and its people – cooking, birds, flowers, coffee growing, Hinduism, Mysore painting (Ramollah is a wonderful artist).  The weather was cool in the evening and the morning when fog would roll in – they call the region “the Scotland of India”, but pleasantly sunny and dry during the day.  The pictures don’t do it justice at all, but here goes!
View from plantation across neighboring hills:
Coffee trees – they trim them to about 5 feet high so that the coffee berries are easy to pick.  The slopes of the plantation are incredibly steep:
Vijai with a pepper vine growing on the trunk of one of the shade trees:
They grow vanilla as well:
Tigger – hiking partner extraordinaire:
At one point I mentioned, with surprise, to Debby and Sarah that Tigger was neutered.   Debby asked why that was surprising and I said that it was because we were in any other place than the US!  Tigger and Patch were happy, active dogs who accompany Vijai out on the plantation.  It was fun to see two dogs that weren’t mangy skeletons. 
Patch on a hike:
Tigger racing down path to say hello:
Scenes from on and around the plantation:
Greg's friend Rolly - he was as long as a tube of chapstick!
I feel very fortunate that we got to see this other side of India.  There are some that would say that it isn’t the “real India”, but I think it is ALL the real India.  It was beautiful, refreshing, relaxing and we learned a lot.  We were the only guests and we spent an evening with the family in their home.  They showed us a video that Vijai’s aunt had made to educate others about the Kodavas and they shared their wedding album with us so that they could show us some of the rituals they perform.  There are no priests or ministers at such events, it is all overseen by the elders.  I’d read that Bel Home has been rated as one of the top 10 homestays in India and I’d say it belongs there.  We left with a bag of their coffee and a bag of their peppercorns as gifts – they were generous with their time as well!
We sadly left our fabulous hosts and returned to Mysore to catch the train.  We visited a palace because we were told we “must” although I have to say that we would’ve skipped it had we not felt some pressure.  It was pretty, but after a few days of peace and quiet I wasn’t ready for the sandalwood vendors.  My temper was short and at one point I actually elbowed a guy out of my way and threatened to break his sandalwood fan like a twig.  I didn’t want a fan or a flute or a snake or a box or…I just wanted to be able to walk 5 feet unhampered! 
 Really, all I want is a lick!
We caught the 2:15 train back to Chennai, were met by a driver who took us back to the port.  We had to show our passports twice and Sarah’s was taken and inspected because they had accidentally stamped Oct. 2 on the visa, not Oct. 22.  It doesn’t matter since the thing is good for 6 months…just more hassle.  Although the driver was able to pick us up at the ship without issue because they had the proper pass the return wasn’t the same.  They had the proper paperwork, but this time wouldn’t accept the photocopy of the driver’s ID.  They made us drive to a nearby building where they took his photo.  We returned to the gate where the same men examined our passports again.  We arrived back at the ship and had to show our paperwork yet again to get back to the ship.  In the course of about 20 minutes we showed it 3 times. 

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