Month: July 2013

Starting at the End… an epilogue on 5 intense months at BCIT

Starting at the End… an epilogue on 5 intense months at BCIT

BCIT web design certificateThis evening I came home to find the certificate for my maddening journey into modern web design at BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology, a well respected college here in Vancouver BC). Knew I’d passed; surprised to see the “With Distinction” honor — unless they all come that way, somehow. The program ran from early January 2013 until the end of May. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times”.

I worked my ass off for this certificate. The frustration occasionally brought me to tears. I felt old and stupid. It’s been a lesson in way more than web design. Hope to go into some of those learnings here… some day. (Update: 6 years later I’m still fooling with web tech)

Southern India – Ooty

Southern India – Ooty

Snooty Ooty

After we left the Toda Village, we hiked down the mountain, seeing some colorful sights along the way. We then caught a bus to a nearby city to grab the famous steam train back to town. It’s one of the few remaining steam engines in India. Because of the extreme incline required to reach Ooty, the British built a narrow-gauge line with techniques copied from the Swiss mountain trains. There were awesome views along the way.

   Colorful tribal village Village Hindu temple School girls who wanted their picture taken – then asked to have prints send to them. (Which I’ve done – won’t they be surprised!) May 2005: I received a delighted thank you from the girls – click here to read it:    View from the train – tea plantation More train views The Ooty trainBack in Ooty, we found that our hotel – a YMCA – had been “converted” to an orphanage by a Bollywood film studio. Alas, this time we were not offered a role in the movie. Ooty itself has lost most of whatever colonial charm it once had. At its heydey, Ooty was known as “snooty ooty” for the superior status felt by its summer inhabitants. The game of Snooker is alleged to have been invented – or at least named – in Snooty Ooty. We didn’t do much in Ooty, other than acquire a suitcase so we would be able to leave our bulky warm clothes and gifts we’d purchased at the airport in Sri Lanka, as we headed off for paradise in the Maldives – a decision that would come back to haunt us a few weeks later.

We twisted & turned our way down from the Ooty Hill Station to Cochin, did a quick overnite there, flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka and did another overnight there, left our spare clothes and gifts at “left luggage” at the airport, and headed off to spend a couple weeks in paradise.

Next Page –Maldives

Previous Page — Toda Village





Southern India – Toda Trek

Southern India – Toda Trek

Toda Village Trek

The Delights & Dangers of Cultural Tourism

“Snooty Ooty” and the Toda Tribe

From Mysore, we headed by minibus to the British Hill Station of Ootacamond, fondly known as Snooty Ooty. Hill Stations are where the British colonials headed when the lowlands heated up to 100 degrees+ in the summer. It was quite the climb, with 39 switchbacks on the final leg (the signs gave a running account of how many curves to go). Half way up, most drivers (including our’s) stopped for 30 minutes or so and let their radiators cool. Despite the narrow, switchback-laden road with sheer cliffs on either side, our driver was typically-optimistic, passing on blind curves and tailgating any vehicle he thought was too slow (which was basically all of them). We knew we had become old India hands when our traveling companions began wailing in fear at the driving, which we had hardly even noticed. On arrival, we dropped our suitcases at the local YWCA, and headed out with our daypacks for a trek up the mountains and an overnight stay at a Toda village.

Visit Unspoiled Rural Villages and Learn the Mysterious Ways of Tribal People!

In a nation with half a dozen major religions and dozens of major languages, what exactly does “tribal” mean, anyway? Maybe “a small band of people that wear colorful clothes, who live in obscure places, are usually poverty-stricken, and have some distinctive cultural and religious practices”? Now, we’ve done our share of stays at tribal villages in the past, with hilltribes in northern Thailand. And it has been both a wonderful and sobering experience – seeing what true poverty is — and how fortunate most North Americans are.

The promise of “tribal village”, is that the visitor gets to see the “unspoiled” remote village. See how the other half live. But of course, by doing the visiting, one is “spoiling” it for the next tourist that come along. And perhaps spoiling it for the tribal people as well. Our visit wasn’t described like that, but many are.

Operation Blanket Sale

We saw this first hand when we hiked up to the village. A half a dozen related families live in a clearing at the top of a hill. The little kids were dressed up in their fancy dresses, the village women had goods to sell spread out on a blanket, and were trying to get us to buy something practically before we’d even set down our packs. It was so rampant that the as we were getting settled into bed for the night, a villager rattled open the door and tried to sell us some blankets. With the exception of one family, all lived in concrete row houses. And they didn’t actually wear the colorful embroidered blankets they were trying to sell; they donned them when we took pictures.

Rural, yes. Isolated, not particularly

The village wasn’t really isolated – despite our having trekked to it, there was a road nearby — we walked out on it theCell next morning. Food came from town — these weren’t subsistence farmers. The village had electricity, indoor lighting, phones, even solar hot water heaters. Over the years, we have run the gauntlet of lodging experience from some of the best 5-star hotels in the world, to sleeping in bamboo huts with wood fires (inside) — for cooking as well as to keep down the insects. Built on stilts, these primitive village often feature pigsties underneath where the family pigs and other livestock are kept. It is an experience beyond value: seeing what “dirt poor” really means, and seeing (a little at least) how people can eke out a life with almost nothing for possessions. It hardens our hearts a bit when we see Americans in seeming poverty.

Anyway, we do know “how the other half lives”… and we’ve lived among them, interacted with them, ate with them, drank with them, predominantly through our volunteering with Heifer International. So, after reading Intrepid’s description of this village, and hearing Group Leader Nitin’s description, we were quite surprised at the reality of the place — the electricity, phones… so forth. The three-year-old on the right was familiar with cell phones and insisted on borrowing on of the visitors’ phone to “make a call”.

It turns out that Intepid tours are pretty much the only ones to visit the village, but they visit weekly. Intrepid claims to be sensitive to the cultural and tribal impact of their tours, but this village certainly seems to have been impacted.

So, what’re the impacts of these visits? Is the village spoiled for westerners looking for that “untainted” village? Was it spoiled for the villagers themselves? Is tourism good or bad for this village? Should Intrepid stop bringing tours to the village? Here are some points to consider:

  • Despite the initial “sales focus”, at least some of the villagers were genuinely friendly & interested in us. There was some English spoken, we could have simple conversations without involving the local guide. It is an exciting change of pace for them when the foreigners showed up.
  • The villagers have livelihoods besides the tourists – they raise oxen and have gardens; some of them work in town for wages. No doubt the tourists are a lucrative sideline, but it isn’t their only source of imcome.
  • Like tribal people in most parts of the world, they are rapidly being assimilated into mainstream Indian society, independent of tourism. The kids all go to Indian schools, and are taught in a non-tribal language (the local dialect and probably English). One of the village women had two years of college; another was taken an advanced policewoman course.
  • They want easier lives like everyone else – they had the chance to get electricity and phone service, and they took advantage of it.
  • Their only real experience of westerners are the Intrepid tours. Their experience is that tourists want them to dress up in their traditional clothes for pictures, and want to buy their wares. They have no context to know what constitutes appropriate behavior and what is pushy or aggressive in the views of westerners.

Enough sociological angst. The women were very eager to talk, and we had conversations as much as their very limited English would allow. I brought along a little photo album of family shots, and showing Scott and I doing various things. As always, that was a big hit. They were astonished at the underwater pictures of us diving. I’m not sure they even comprehended the snow. Sara, my 7 year old niece, was the star of the show – they loved her white-blond hair. Another big hit was the gardening shot showing Kathy with a basket of tomatoes, squash, leeks, etc. Something that is directly related to their life. One of the more interesting conversations was their question whether any of the marriages in the US were “love marriages” – i.e. where people loved each other, as opposed to arranged marriages. All the women there said they had had arranged marriages (as do most Indians) and were astounded when they learned that this wasn’t the case in the US. One of the village women was off getting advanced training to be a policewoman. They were all very proud of this – it was mentioned many times.

Let’s show you some village life.


Toda traditional costume – Scott & Kathy do the tourist thing… Traditional Toda home. Only one family in the village still lives in this type of house. The rest of the families live in row houses like this – there are three homes here, each with 3 or so rooms.   

Interiors are sparsely furnished, and unheated (it gets down to freezing in the mountains). Interior of traditional home. This is the kitchen you’re looking at. This woman has two years of college, majoring in economics. This is a kitchen in one of the row houses. The dinner they fixed for us included beets, dhal (lentils), and rice. It was quite tasty.   Group photo. *Everyone* wanted their picture taken. Notice the kids are all dressed up in their finest. The women wear their hair in these long curls. I have no idea how they get them to hold so well. Toda kids having dinner. A lot of the girls had shaved heads – I’m guessing it was to get rid of lice     Scott tried out for the Toda cricket team. He did get one hit, but he was no match for the Kiwi, Indian, and Toda experts. The sun never sets on the British cricket empire. There were lots of kids in the village. They like kids a lot – the men and teenage boys were just as affectionate with the kids as their moms and sisters. When they learned that Scott & I had no kids, they felt very bad on hour behalf and asked if we had been to the hospital to see if something could be done about it. They were incredulous that we might choose not to have children. The kids in this village go to school – girls as well as boys, a good sign. 

Next Page — Ooty

Previous Page — Mysore

Southern India – Mysore (aka Madras)

Southern India – Mysore (aka Madras)

Mysore, India
Great Town, Unfortunate Name

From Mamallapuram, we took an overnite train to Mysore, a great little city with lots to see and do. Overnight trains are a great way to get around – not only do you not waste your waking hours in transit, you also skip having to pay for a hotel room for the night.

Mysore is most famous for its Maharaja’s palace, a relatively new (1912) and ostentatious place, used primarily for public ceremonies. It was impressive by day, but by night, it was spectacular. The entire palace is lined with lights, which are turned on for Sundays and holidays.

 Mysore has a great wholesale market, the Devaraja Market, which has rows of stalls selling flowers (primarily for use in offerings), in addition to the normal fruits and vegetables.. Markets are one of our most favorite places to visit, because the local life is on display at its colorful best. Here are some shots of the wonderful Mysore market.

      After spending a day looking around Mysore, it was off to the obligatory temple tours in the neighboring region. The temples in India are so spectacular, it’s hard to believe that one could become jaded – but by this time we were about templed out. The second temple site we visited, Hoysala, built in 1268, was spectacular, with intricate architecture and carvings.

   Woman selling offerings to bring to the temple (which no doubt originated at the wholesale market) A shrine to the ox Nandi, transport for the god Shiva A real-life ox coming down the stairs behind the Nandi shrine    The main building at the Hoysala temple Detail on one of the walls Close up of the carvings 

While Scott went to snap pictures at the palace at night, Kathy stayed back for a beauty treatment – getting her hands and feet “henna’d”. A mendhi (the name of the tatto itself) is a body decoration used primarily for weddings, parties, and other dress-up occasions. The mehndi’s are permanent, and last until the skin wears off – usually a week or ten days. First thing is to select the design you want, from a book of dozens of designs. The henna artist then reproduces the picture, by eye, using a paste made out of henna that is squeezed out of a tube, like decorating a cake. It took her about 90 minutes to do the design you see here. Walking around the neighborhood of our hotel, we kept running into a cute little kid, Mustafa, who would try to get us to come into a shop to buy something. Nothing unusual there, except he didn’t seem to care which shop he dragged us into. And theshopkeepers seemed to be amused when Mustafa brought in a customer. Mustafa was exceedingly personable, spoke a fair amount of English, and insisted he was getting no commission. One of the shopkeepers explained to us that Mustafa came from a dysfunctional alcoholic family, and he hung around the shops in the evening, imitating the shopkeepers and guides he saw. The shopkeepers made sure he got a meal if he was hungry. Tough situation, but little Mustafa seemed to do well in spite of it all. Click here to listen to Mustafa’s sales pitch.


Next Page — Toda Trek

Previous Page — Mamallapuram



Southern India – Mamallapuram

Southern India – Mamallapuram

Carved in Stone

From the underwhelming city of Pondicherry, we followed the coast north for a couple of hours to the delightful seaside town of Mamallapuram. Mamallapuram has large outcroppings of granite, which locals began carving into spectacular temples, statues, and reliefs 1500 years ago – as much to advertise their skills as for worship. It has been a (the?) major center of granite carving in the country. The town’s carvers are world-renowned, and orders for huge statues come from all over the world. With its combination of ancient carvings, stone craftsmen, and white sand beach, Mamallapuram is quite the tourist town.

The ancient carvings are interesting it that they are not constructured out of blocks of granite, but instead were created by taking a granite outcropping and chipping away until a temple or whatever remained. The shots below were taken at the various temple sites.

    s  Mamallapuram had been hit by the tsunami, though it had caused no deaths in the town (there had been deaths in the villages along the coast, however). We had dinner at a seaside restaurant, and saw some signs of the tsunami – but just barely. The seaside restaurant had been heavily damaged by the tsunami, but had been rebuilt and was open for business in only a few weeks.

   Sign on our seaside restaurant’s wall The barely visible red writing at the top of the ballustrades is the sign to the left Mamallapuram beach. Note the tangles of nets in the foreground, from the tsunami. There was some desultory work going on with boat rebuilding, but the fisherman were getting some sort of stipend, so they weren’t in a huge rush to get back to work. You can see some ancient shore temples in the background.Here are two of my favorite shots from Mamallapuram – a cow walking down the beach at sunset, accompanied by a pack of playful dogs.

To the right is a cute street urchin trying to sell me a string of beads. She wouldn’t leave me along until I pulled out a candy and gave it to her. Later on that day she saw me again, and hit on me for another candy.


Next Page — Mysore

Previous Page — Pondicherry



Southern India – Pondicherry

Southern India – Pondicherry

Not so French

We had a fun trip to a small nearby temple, where we came across another ceremony of unknown origin that was being covered by the local press. There was a god wrapped in golden robes that was paraded three times around the inside of a temple, led by an elephant and accompanied by racous music.

  Temple elephant leads the procession three times around the temple Ganesh, the elephant god, is carried three times around the temple by worshipers Scott gets blessed by temple elephantKathy took an early morning walk down a random side ally, and found people already up at at their morning chores. Typical Indian street scenes.

   The ladies all go out to fetch water in the morning The ironing wallah already hard at work. He uses coals in the base of the iron for heat. The rickshaw wallah wants his picture taken too

Southern India – Madurai

Southern India – Madurai

Madurai, India
The Mother of All Temples

We scarcely had time to recover from our eight hour bus ride from Periyar into the town of Madurai in Tamil Nadu state, when we were off to see the most impressive manmade construction in southern India, the Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple. Madurai is one of the oldest cities in south Asia, and was routinely commented by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Temple is massive, with new section continually added over the centuries. The most eyecatching part, though, are the gopuras – the tall, garishly painted temple gates. It is said that there are more than two million statues at the temple – most of them on the gates. The picture at the right shows the gopuras that enclose the temple grounds – you can see how vast it is. And you can see from the pictures below how intricately decorated the gopuras are. They are repainted every 10 years – they are due to be repainted within the next year or so 

 The inside of the temple is equally overwhelming. 15,000 people visit on a typical day, including many pilgrims from across the south. It has no discernable order or layout – just rooms and corridors; shrines to various deities; bazaars selling religious and tourist items; an occasional elephant; statues and painted ceilings; marraige halls…..

   Waiting for a wedding ceremony to begin Row of bazaar shops selling religious and tourist items; in the foreground, a bull statue representing the transport for Shiva, one of the gods A fertility goddess worshiped by women hoping to become pregnant. If your prayers are answered, you are supposed to give a silk sari to the goddess   Not clear if these were tired pilgrims, or homeless who live in the temple Updated technology to let people know when the ceremonies are The godess Kali, in a marathon dance contest with god Shiva. Butter balls are sold to worshipers, who fling them at the dancers to keep them cool.    Kathy being blessed by an elephant (after depositing 10 rupees in his trunk) Scott enjoing the company of one of the goddesses More statues 



Next Page — Pondicherry

Previous Page –Indian Bus Ride


Southern India – On the Road

Southern India – On the Road

On the Road Again
Traveling With the Locals

Intrepid makes sure that its travelers experience the reality of the country they are visiting. And, in India, this means riding on the long-distance busses and on the trains (and NOT in first class). They are invariably uncomfortable – the seats are sized for people about 2/3 our height and weight, they are almost always packed, and there is no air con. There is a silver lining though – you get a chance to see life as it goes by, outside the well traveled tourist pathways.

Bus Ride from Hell

From Periyar to our next stop, Madurai, was a 8 hour journey on a “local” bus (meaning it stopped at every little town along the way). It was 95 degrees. The sun shone in on us the whole way. The but was newer, but seats were about 16″ wide. It was standing room only for most of the trip. Bus drivers in India are famous for the aggressiveness, pushing ox-drawn carts off the road, recklessly passing on blind curves, and blowing their horns incessantly. This ride was no different – except we actually got in an accident. Fortunately, we were stopped. Another, even more aggressive bus, tried to squeeze by us in a traffic jam and scraped the front half of one side of the bus. Neither driver even bothered to get out and look at the damage…

Everybody’s Happy

The bus stops for shorter or longer periods, to pick people up. One one of the longer stops, at a bus station, it wasn’t long before a beggar girl came up and asked for money and “one pen” (the standard request). I took her picture from the window, showed it to her, and she was astonished and thrilled. Quickly, a couple of her friends came up & I took some more pictures. That brought even more kids running. They all thought this was marvelous fun.

  Then the vendors started coming by to sell things. A guava vendor started out asking 10 rupees apiece (about 25 cents) for his fruit, which was clearly ridiculous. The Indian passenger sitting next to us said they should be 1 rupee each. They weren’t very attractive fruit, but the seller was so hopeful. So, I made a deal with him to buy his entire stock (about a dozen) for 10 rupees – then handed them out to the kids. The fruit seller was happy, the kids were thrilled, and I got some great photos.


Another Dirty, Dusty, Delta Day

Most of the pictures on this web site are of either unbelievable Indian sights – temples, palaces, carvings, ancient ruins, or of the people of India (such as above). But we never show you the picture of a typical Indian village. And most of India is villages – about 560,000 of them. Throughout the 8 hour journey, we rode through town after town that looked pretty much like the one you see here. Ramshackle buildings, many with no obvious purpose. Men sitting around, doing nothing. Tiny stalls selling candy and crackers or vegetables. Tuk-tuks lined up, with no one needing a ride and the drivers sound asleep in back. Random animals wander the streets. The word that comes to mind is suffocating – because of the heat and the dust, but most of all because of the lack of anything to do. Look out the window with us as we go through a typical small south Indian town. It’s about a minute long (I’ve slowed it down a bit). Makes your hometown look pretty glamorous, I’ll bet.


All Dressed Up & Somewhere to Go

For some reason we never could determine, in southern India, the horns of the oxen are brightly painted and at times decorated with streamers, knobs, etc. Kathy found this fascinating, and collected a set of horn fashions for your viewing pleasure.


Next Page — Madurai

Previous Page — Periyar

Southern India – Periyar

Southern India – Periyar

Periyar National Park
Lots to see besides animals

Kills & Quills

From the Kerala backwaters, we headed up into the mountains to visit Periyar National Park, famed for spotted deer, elephants, and tigers. India has a surprising number of species that we think of as African – besides those already mentioned, there are rhiconceros, leopards, wolves, wild dogs and more. Periyar is best known for its elephants. We were jaded, having already seen so many elephants in Sri Lanka, but we were up for a hike through the jungle anyway. There were plenty of deer on the drive up to the park itself. We weren’t five minutes into our hike when we came across a very large, very dead deer, its neck brocken and head turned 180 degrees, just like in The Exorcist. It was a fresh tiger kill from the previous night. Apparently, the tigers likes their meat “aged” and often let the kills rot for a day or two before eating. We were thrilled to find such recent evidence of tigers so close (though, being on foot, it did make one wonder if the tiger might still be hungry). Alas, that was to be the extent of our excitement for the day. Another three hours worth of trekking bought us nothing more than an ability to identify porcupine poop (common along the trails) and a couple of very big, very sharp quills left nearby.

“Tenderized then Steamed”

No, that’s not how we ate our meat that evening. After the arduous wildlife trek, we opted for our first ayurvedic massage. Ayurveda is the practice of traditional Indian medicine. An ayurvedic massage is somewhat different than a traditional massage, but not by that much. We were separated, then stripped and the same-sex practitioner gracefully donned us in sort of paper (throw-away) loin cloths — closer to a diaper, preserving our modesty — but just barely. Scott said he looked like a well-oiled Tarzan (ok maybe more like “George of the Jungle”). Herbal oils are used, which isn’t that unusual either. Unlike most western massage, this procedure used a huge quantity of oil — probably a full pint (half litre). The oil is massaged just about everywhere, including into your hair and scalp as well, leaving one looking a bit punky at the end. Long, repeated strokes are used, more than the “deep tissue” approach used in Swedish massage etc. At the end, the massage therapist wipes down the entire mess (“you”) requiring multiple towels — then with the same deft delicateness with which the “diaper” was donned, it was doffed, and another towel supplied for self-removal of the remaining bits of oil.

At the very end comes a sauna, where one is put, naked, into a plastic box with a seat (see picture, right), with a hole in the top for one’s head to stick out, as the nearby (visible) flame heats water into steam and pumps it into the box. Low tech, but it works. Scott gave the steam part a miss (he sweats like that normally), instead, getting another 15 minutes of massage. An interesting experience that cost about $10 each for 90 minutes.

Unexpected Procession #1

After the massage, I headed off to the local Internet cafe. As I was waiting for a seat to open up, an elaborate parade went by – first the women, in beautiful saris, then the men. Occassionally, someone would carry an elaborate ceremonial umbrella. As is often the case, I had no idea what it was, but turned on my video recorder in case something exciting happened. At the end of the marchers came midevel-looking, long-bearded priests, followed by an ambulance with a wooden box it it — at which point I realized it was a funeral procession – probably Syrian Christian.

Emmanuel Orphanage — A Place to Visit Next Time You Decide to Feel Sorry for Yourself

Intrepid Travel makes it a point to donate to various local-scale charities they come across in their trip itineraries. They contribute from their profits, and they also encourage their clients to make a contribution. Because they see the charity every time they come through on a tour, they can keep an eye on how the money is spent. Emmanuel Orphanage is one such charity they support. It’s not a big place – about 25 kids, founded by a religious man, and run by a husband/wife team. Most of the kids are not actual orphans – typically, their (poverty-stricken) parents split up, Mom was too poor (or too drugged/drunk) to afford the kids, who were then handed off to Grandma to raise. Grandma got too old, too sick or too poor to raise the kid, and they were sent off to the orphanage. The orphanage was four rooms – a kitchen, a dining room, a boy’s sleeping room and a girl’s sleeping room. The sleeping rooms were cement, including the floors. Until Intrepid donated some foam pads, the kids slept directly on the floor. The thing that struck me about the place is that there was virtually nothing in the rooms – the kids had no possessions, other than the shirt on their back, and their other shirt hanging out to dry. The orphanage lives “hand-to-mouth” – they were currently about 4000 rupees (US$100) in debt to the local grocer. It seemed like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. Nonetheless, the kids were well turned out and delighted to see us. (And Scott & I paid off about half the grocery bill). 




   Girl’s bedroom. Sleeping mats in cornder – a gift from Intrepid Foundation Orphanage Kitchen Orphanage Bulding 

Unexpected Procession #2

As we were saying our goodbyes at the orphanage, an unexpected elephant parade passed by. This is something that seldom happens to us in New Hampshire (actually, it’s never happened), but in India, all sorts of unexpected occurences are commonplace. The elephant was all dressed up, and was accompanied by music — going right down the main drag into the center of town. It turns out there was some sort of temple festival that evening, and the elephant was on his way to kick things off. You can watch the parade here.

Not Bad for Just One Day

All these things happened in just one day in India — and I’ve left several additional activities out. You can see why India is such an intense place to visit, and why it is so irresistable.