Monday, March 30, 2009

"Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you..." -Roald Dahl

Post by: Beth

As an update to anyone who may not yet know, Raja and I are about to set off for the next rotation destinations: Singapore and Hong Kong! The business in which he'll be working for his final rotation has 1 team in Singapore and 1 team in Hong Kong. Since the rules of Singapore state that a person can work in Singapore on a tourist visa for 30 days, Raja will be working with that half of the team until the work visa for Hong Kong is finished processing. Once the HK process is complete, we'll move to Hong Kong and settle in for the next 5 months or so.

We're scheduled to fly out Wednesday at 11:45am (India time), and we'll be landing in Singapore after a 5-hour flight. Neither of us has ever been to Singapore or Hong Kong, so we're excited to see what these parts of the world hold!

I'm changing the world clocks at the bottom of the blog to reflect Singapore's time zone., and we'll keep everyone updated as we start this new part of our journey. As always, thank you so much for reading our blog. Always feel free to post comments and let us know how you're doing... We miss everyone from our homes! :)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation..." -Leonardo da Vinci

Post by: Beth

So we've done adventure (wildlife preserve), and we've done part adventure/part relaxation (houseboating)... all that's left to do in Kerala is to partake in sheer relaxation, and we've set aside 3 days to do just that. With neither Raja nor myself having visited Kerala before, we could only rely on recommendations, reviews, and our gut instincts when selecting the hotel for our "relaxation" portion of the trip. We read dozens of reviews... sifted through pages of feedback.. asked everyone we could find that had traveled to Kerala... and finally settled on Lemon Tree hotel. We were really on searching for a few elements, and on paper, Lemon Tree seemed to have them all: seclusion, a large pool, a restaurant on the property, and favorable reviews.

We made our way to Lemon Tree by rickshaw (the scenic route!), immediately after we stepped off of the houseboat. Upon our arrival at the hotel, I knew right away that we'd made the right choice on hotels, and that this was going to be my favorite part of the vacation. Here in India, things are quite a bit different, if you haven't figured that out already by the blog posts from the past 6 months. Not at Lemon Tree! It felt like I stepped into a beautiful resort that could rival anywhere I'd been on vacation from America... everything was white and sparkling clean, the bed was an old English canopy-style design, and the pool was an infinity pool that seemed to go on forever since it gave the illusion of flowing directly into an enormous lake that had no boundaries. I bounded about happily, turning on the massaging shower while still in my clothes... rapidly flipping on and off the tv that boasted MTV and several other American channels... dashing out to the pool and dipping my toes into the warm water... running back in and hugging the fluffy white towels to myself. I flipped open the room service menu and saw french fries.. ice cream sundaes.. caesar salads.. shrimp cocktail.. hamburgers.. club sandwiches.. the list of familiar favorites went on and on! I was ecstatic, and knew the trip would end with me imploring Raja to let us stay "just one more night!"
We had an amazing time... The entire first day, we essentially only left the pool area to eat and sleep. One night, we had a candlelight dinner thoughtfully put together by the staff of Lemon Tree. We lounged in the hammock by the pool and read our books under a set of huge coconut trees. We even found a recent NASCAR race on TV and happily piled up on the fluffy comforter to watch -- We haven't seen one race on TV since we left St. Louis! This portion of the vacation took so many of the comforts from home and splayed them in front of us continuously... It was the perfect end to our 6 day vacation in Kerala. I begged Raja to leave me behind there, since he insisted he had to get back to work... but he refused. :-/ I can only hope that our next vacation is as wonderful...

“Follow the river and you will find the sea.” -French Proverb

Post by: Beth

Shortly after our adventure in the wildlife preserve, we were headed for the second part of our vacation: part adventure/part relaxation. Houseboats are quite famous in the state of Kerala, or in the Alleppey area to be more specific. So much so that everytime a driver or wildlife guide asked us where we were off to next, each gave a knowing nod and toothy smile in response to our chirps of "Alleppey!" "Ahhh.. houseboating" they said automatically. When we got to Alleppey and saw literally hundreds of houseboats lined up for rent, we realized just how popular this adventure is for tourists in the area.

A houseboat trip is typically an overnight stay on a Kettuvallam, which is a boat made of thatched roof covers over wooden hulls. Each houseboat is constructed using the ancient principles and techniques of boat building by the local carpenters using ‘Anjali` wood. Coir ropes are used for tying the wooden boards together. Boats in a variety of shapes and sizes have traditionally been the main means of transport of men and materials in the Kerala Backwaters since olden days. In particular, the house boats were used to ship rice and spices and other goods. Today, Kettuvallams, or houseboats, are used mainly to promote the tourist industry; guests from all over the world clamber on board these ecofriendly boats made of bamboo poles, coconut fibre, ropes, bamboo mats, carpets, and of course the Anjali wood. There's quite the variety of amenities available: Guests can pick A/C or non A/C boats.. 1, 2, or 3 bedrooms.. balcony or single story.. Hopping from one boat to the next in search of the perfect boat is quite an adventure in itself. After viewing about 10 boats, Raja & I collaborated to pick our favorite: The Venice Tours II. With A/C (Kerala is REALLY hot by this time of the season), 2 bedrooms, and a balcony, we had everything we needed and we were ready for our first trip down the backwaters of Kerala.

The backwaters are a chain of lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast, otherwise known as Malabar Coast. The lagoons and lakes are connected by canals and inlets, and salt water from the sea meets with fresh water from the rivers. The waterway takes you past various towns in Alleppey, and offers a glimpse into a very different lifestyle. Women wash their family's laundry by dipping it into the backwaters, then slapping it against the rocks that line the canals. The communist flag flies in front of many of the homes. Men perch on the rocks and fish with cane poles or sticks with a simple string tied to the end, catching fish for their family's meals. The scenery is beautiful, as the canals are often filled with water lilys, and a dense line of palm trees line the canals on either side. It's very peaceful out there, and guests can simply relax and take in their surroundings.

The houseboat trip isn't the same without pictures, so I put together a little "story by photos" that may help give images to the words... I had no idea what to expect from our trip to the backwaters, so took lots of photos in hopes of conveying our trip to you. :)

We've now picked our houseboat, and our luggage is being taken to the boat of choice. You can see how many houseboats are lined up here.. This trail of boats goes on for almost an entire mile!

Below, you can see the boat we selected. It was a carefully evaluated process, with a mental checklist and much debate over the interior colors. We got THAT particular when choosing our boat. Since it's technically the very end of the houseboating season, less tourists are in the area, so we were able to tour through lots of boats and find just the perfect one for us.

Here's another view of the houseboats... At this point, we're settled into the balcony and waiting to untie and drive away from the docks.

And we're off! Only in real life, it's not quite so sudden or exciting... It's more of a gliding away from the dock, and it even took us a minute to realize we were moving. Very relaxing, and the amazing scenery is there right from the beginning.

After about 3 hours of coasting down the backwaters, it was time to stop for lunch. The boat stops for meals and the overnight portion of the trip. For meals, freshly caught seafood is prepared by the boat crew, along with some traditional Keralan rice and staples. Here's where we docked for our first meal:

And here's the first meal!

After lunch, the sailing continues... more beautiful views to take in, and Raja & I mainly relaxed, read our books, and chatted about the views around us.

Below, you can see where we docked for dinner and the overnight portion of the trip. We were under a canopy of palm trees, and overlooking rice fields that go on as far as the eye can see. We got off the boat and toured some of the area, getting a close look at the rice plants. I forgot to take pictures during dinner, but we had massive prawns and more Keralan rice, along with a chicken curry dish.
After an early dinner, we sat on the balcony and watched sun go down. GORGEOUS sunsets happen over the backwaters, and the twilight hour comes alive with the sounds of birds, crickets, and other sounds from nature.

In the morning, the boat sailed off promptly at 7:00am, with a breakfast of omelettes and toast with jam served shortly afterwards.
We were up before breakfast, and luckily got to watch the sunrise.. It's amazing how quiet it is in the early mornings there, until the birds and roosters wake up with the sun.
It only took about 1 hour to get back to the boat docking area, as the crew takes a much shorter route back in than they do on the way out. All in all, the houseboat trip was definitely what we'd been going for: half adventure/half relaxation, and it was amazing to be surrounded only by nature for an entire 24 hour period. We know now why it's such a popular tourist activity in Kerala... Hope the story by pictures helped detail our take on this Keralan adventure. :)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"There is a way that nature speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough to pay attention to the story." -Linda Hogan

Post by: Raja
One of the first things that we did on our trip to Kerala was head to the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the middle of the Gavi (pronounced Gay-Vee) Rainforest. The Gavi Rainforest sits in the valleys of the Western Ghat Mountain Range which is one of India's largest. The mountain range extends from India's Southern tip all the way up to Mumbai - that is roughly the same distance, or a little longer, than the Appalachain Mountain Range in North America.

The safari "tour" that we did consisted of a jeep safari ride through the fringe of the Gavi Rainforest at 5:30AM, a hike through the jungle, breakfast and lunch at the "Green Mansion," and then a return trip through the rainforest around 5PM. What was it like? You can see everything below!

We got up early for the safari (5AM!), but look how excited we look!

We drove about 40 minutes from the edge of the rainforest where our cabin was to get to the entrance of the preserve. Along the way, hundreds of tea plantations dotted the landscape. Here is a picture of one.

Here we are about to enter the preserve.

Our first "Catch" of the day - a baby owl!

Here we are atop one of the highest ridges in the Preserve - the view from here is great.

Our jeep that we rode in during our safari.

This is where we had breakfast and lunch. A nice little garden area in the middle of the Preserve that provides a touch of civilization (and nourishment!) for visitors.

After breakfast, we set out on our trek!

A few pictures of things we saw throughout the trek - a giant ant nest (yes, nest), Beth and our crew picking their way through the dense jungle, a breathtaking view from a ridge.

This is a jungle camp. Visitors to the preserve can spend the night here and go out on night treks. This is actually one of the best ways to see some of the wildlife as many of the animals nap during the day to avoid getting out in the blazing sun. Notice the big moat around the camp. They just built that last month because an elephant actually came into the camp one night and started pushing on the hut. I can't imagine how exciting (and frankly a little scary) that would have been!

This waterfall is REALLY high up and during/just after the rainy season they say that it is gorgeous. Unfortunately, we came just at the end of the dry season so by this point it had all dried up. At least it was a great place for us to stop for a bit and rest our feet!

We saw a bunch of monkeys in these trees while we were sitting on top of the waterfall...more to come on that later.

Giant Spider...more breathtaking views.. ho hum ;)

Now this - the highlight of the trip so far. Luckily, I was able to capture this big guy swinging from tree to tree. Trust me...this took lots of skill...these buggers are fast!

This is me chillin' in the jeep. Time to finally head home...but the fun isn't over yet!

This is a giant squirrel and a massive bison (the guide said it probably weighed about 4000lbs - thats like the size of an Accord) that we saw on our way home that evening.

That's pretty much everything that we did on our 12 hour Rainforest/Jungle Safari. I have to let everyone know that Beth was a real trooper on this adventure. She wasn't feeling well due to a little stomach bug that she had left over from our Delhi/Punjab trip, and started feeling really ill towards the end of our 4 hour trek, but she toughed it out and made it back to the camp. I was really proud of her (her nose was even bleeding for some reason although I don't think it was from the stomach bug - I really have no idea why it was bleeding)!

All in all it was a great day and we definitely saw some very neat and different things. After we got back to the cabin, we had a nice shower to refresh ourselves, had a great dinner, and went to bed listening to the sounds of the jungle. The next morning, we were up at 5AM again and headed towards our next adventure - a night on a houseboat on the Kerala backwaters!