Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kerala: Alleppey

            For the past four days, we have been exploring the serene coastal backwaters of central Kerala, where the main attraction is renting a houseboat and cruising around the endless rivers, canals and other waterways. Alleppey, a mid-sized, laid back town that has charitably been referred to as the “Venice of the East,” served as our hub. A preliminary warning: if you are easily upset or disturbed by photographs of palm trees, this post is not for you.
            We began our voyage from Wayanad down to Alleppey, which sits roughly midway along Kerala’s lengthy coastline, by taking the bus ride from hell. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that our bus had open-air windows (not in a good way), the route involved windy mountain roads that snaked along towering cliffs, and the bus driver gave no indication that he valued his own life, let alone the lives of the the helpless passengers. Hallie and I both agreed that “we’re too old for this shit.” I’d tried to make a funny story out of it, but it really wasn’t that funny, and I can say with 100% certainty that this is the last time I’ll ever take a government bus through the mountains in a developing country. It’s just not worth it.

Kerala’s “open-air” bus windows
            The bus took us from the mountains in Wayanad down to a coastal city called Kozhikode. The city was formerly known as Calicut, and most people I spoke to still referred to it as such, just as most Indians seem to continue to refer to Mumbai as Bombay, etc. From Calicut, we took a four-hour train ride down the coast to Alleppey. We had some time to kill before our train, so we tracked down a restaurant that Biju from Olives Homestay had recommended (it was also in Lonely Planet). The place was known for its fish dishes and “legendary chicken Biryani.” I opted for a fish curry with mango. Fishing is one of Kerala’s primary industries and naturally the region is known for its seafood cuisine, but this dish was pretty disappointing, and had nothing on some of the fish dishes I had at Olives.
            A few days prior to this voyage, we had made a last-minute switch up in our itinerary (more days in less places), and I had somewhat hastily arranged for us to stay at another home stay in Alleppey. Actually, it wasn’t in Alleppey proper, but instead was in a small village about 15km southeast of town, deep inside Kerala’s famous “backwaters.” Given the experience we just had at Olives, I was a bit nervous that we’d be overly dependent on our hosts, but thought it was worth the gamble so that we could get out of the city and have an “authentic” experience. 
It had just turned dark when we arrived in Alleppey, and I was praying that a kind man with a smile would be waiting for us at the station. Sure enough, as soon as we stepped out of the station, a plump man with a mustache sauntered up and revealed a crumbled piece of paper adorned with my name. We both smiled, and we were our way.
The homestay -- called Nelpura Heritage Homestay -- was run by a middle-aged man named Chacko, who works as a professor of pharmacology at the local university and runs his homestay on the side. In our email correspondence, he told me that the price included transport to his property by canoe, which I thought was a nice touch. However, the sun had long since set and a steady rain was coming down, so I assumed that we’d skip the romantic canoe ride and make the whole trip by “dug dug,” the comical term Chacko used for tuk tuks, and one that Hallie and I have since adopted. My assumption about the canoe ride was dead wrong. After about 20 minutes on the main road, our driver took us down a narrow lane to the water’s edge, where two men with a motorized canoe awaited our arrival. One of the men, a chipper middle-aged guy named Kumar, turned out to be Nelpura’s permanent “caretaker” (butler?), and I believe the other guy was just a local boatman. Kumar handed us each an umbrella and instructed us to sit on some towel-lined lawn chairs that had been positioned inside the canoe. And off we went. The boat ride had most definitely not been cancelled.
When we finally arrived at Nelpura, we were both pretty wet, but neither of us really cared. By the time we had finally settled down in our room, however, I was overcome by a growing sense that I had not picked the right place to stay. The austere, cabin-like room had low ceilings and only a single window. Perhaps the extensive use of dark wood was designed to create a "heritage" vibe, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of place you want to hang out in. As Hallie put it, it felt like you were in a sarcophagus. When Kumar informed me that “breakfast is at 9, lunch at 1, tea at 4, and dinner at 7,” an anxiety came over me. I began to feel trapped, a feeling that only grew when Chacko casually lamented that the village had been flooded for the past two weeks, rendering many of the walkways unusable. In fact, he had been unable to use his car for the past several days, meaning the only way back to Alleppey was by boat. Oh, and the internet was broken. Trapped indeed.
That night, Hallie and I had a pow-wow and decided that we needed to relocate the following morning. I was nervous about breaking this news to Chacko. I’m not really sure why I was nervous, but I think it was because he was such a kind, gregarious guy and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. The night we arrived, his wife cooked us a delicious home-cooked meal, and I didn’t want him to think we were ungrateful.
The next morning, I rose early to break the news so that we could arrange our return to civilization. When I told him, his eyes lit up and he responded: “I’m so relieved you’re saying this! I was just trying to figure out how to explain this to you at breakfast, but I don’t think this is the right time for you to be staying here.” We were on the same page.
I’m not sure why Chacko didn’t come to this conclusion prior to accepting our invitation, but it didn’t matter because staying there for one night ended up being a worthwhile experience. After I told Chacko we wanted to leave, he helped us find a suitable place to stay back in town and arranged for our transport (including the canoe trip again). We had some time to kill, so Chacko encouraged us to go for a walk around his village despite the flooded pathways.
I really enjoyed this walk. Armed with nothing more than a pair of flip-flops, we trudged through the flooded terrain alongside the village’s pedestrian commuters. After about 10 minutes, we reached dry land once again and wandered around the local village, which carried on as usual despite the high water levels. It was still early, and many local residents were brushing their teeth or bathing in the canals (a practice whose health benefits I find dubious, given the various things we saw floating around in the water L). Old men squatted along the edge of the river, patiently waiting to catch a fish with homemade fishing rods. And at each turn, cheerful children approached us to say hello. Out of respect, we didn’t take any pictures of people, unless it was clear they wanted us to.

A Christian dug dug powering through the deluge

A devout cat.
After our walk, we took another canoe ride back to the main road, only this time we could see where we were going and the sun was shining.

            The place Chacko had found for us had a vague “motel” vibe, but we were happy to take it as the staff was friendly and the room was clean, which increasingly are the only things I really care about! It was located in a neighborhood called Finishing Point, which earned this title because it is near the finishing point of Alleppey’s famous Snake Boat Race. Each year, the race attracts throngs of Keralans from all over the state who come to watch the race. Each boat is over 100 feet long and is powered by over 100 rowers. We actually missed the race by only a few weeks, but I had read it is nearly impossible to find a place to stay in Alleppey when the race is on, and had also read about people getting injured in human stampedes because of the large crowds, so I figured it was ok that we missed it. It is worth a google image search to check out what the boats look like though.  
We had previously arranged to go on a day-long kayaking trip the following day, and our new hotel helped us arrange for a houseboat trip for the day after that. That left a whole day open for us to wander around Alleppey. We got lunch at a local joint, which served bottomless thalis (sample platters) for roughly 75 cents per person. The food down here is exquisite. Everything is cooked in coconut oil instead of ghee, the dominant ingredients are veggies like beets, carrots, cabbage, and okra, and the typical flavors include mustard seeds, curry leaf, ginger, cardamom, and of course, more coconut. Interestingly, and much to our disappointment, many of the restaurants only serve this Keralan-style food at lunch, and at night the menus become restricted to more typical north Indian dishes.
            After lunch, we treated ourselves to “full body” Ayurvedic massages, an experience I will never forget but have no intention of reliving any time soon. The details, in all their naked glory, are perhaps best left omitted, but let’s just say that experience involved the powerful hands of a man who identified himself only as “Shiva,” a tight-fitting mesh loincloth, and copious -- dare I say absurd -- amounts of Ayurvedic massage oil. If you've never had an authentic ayurvedic massage before, I recommend trying it out, but it's definitely not for everyone. 
            I don’t have much else to report from that day, except that while walking around at night we came upon a strange performance at a local outdoor bandstand-type facility. I have no idea who organized this event, what its purpose was, or who the performers were. Bizarrely, other than five men sitting in the front row who were going absolutely crazy with enthusiasm, almost all of the chairs in the audience were empty. The rest of the crowd lined the perimeter, presumably because they too were just passing by and decided to check out what was going on. Here are a few short videos.

            Also, there is a strong communist presence in Kerala. I don’t know much else about this phenomenon, but it’s interesting to be in a country where communism hasn’t been utterly demonized and can function as a legitimate political party alongside more mainstream parties. I also think it's kind of cool that they continue to use the hammer and sickle. How old school. 

            The next day, we went kayaking on the backwaters. I found the kayaking to be physically strenuous but quite rewarding. The trip was cool because we were able to go down many of the narrow waterways that are inaccessible by the larger houseboats. Fortunately, the guys who organized the trip for us knew that not everyone has diesel biceps, and they split up each phase of kayaking with relaxing breaks on the motorized support boat. They also took us to great place for lunch, which wasn’t more than a little shack on the side of a river. In addition to delicious veg sides, I finally got a taste of the locally famous Keralan fried fish. It did not disappoint. We shared the trip with a nice British woman named Ruth, and it was fun to exchange travel stories and advice. Here are a few pictures from the kayaking trip. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the narrow canals  because they were only accessible when in the kayak, meaning I couldn’t take any pictures.

Lunch (pre rice avalanche).
Abandoned House Boat
Palm Trees
More Palm Trees
            But my favorite experience in Kerala was definitely renting a houseboat for an overnight trip. The original houseboats were converted rice barges, but I think now they are made from scratch. There are over 1,000 boats in operation, and they range from small, humble vessels to double decker boats with 5 bedrooms. Ours was somewhere in the middle. It had two bedrooms, which I couldn't believe actually had air conditioning, although we were only permitted to use it after 9pm. Except for sleeping, however, we spent 97% of our time out in the open-air front of the boat, which had a dining table, a soda, and two comfortable captain's chairs. 
         Admittedly, it was a bit touristy, but nothing beats cruising through the backwaters at an unrushed pace and eating authentic Keralan food at each meal. Our boat had a crew of three men, who provided incredible service and made sure we were comfortable. There was Sonny, who cooked the food and also seemed to be the unofficial captain, Sugu, who steered the boat, and Ashik, who helped out Sonny with the cooking and was also “in charge of the engine.” They were all super friendly and Sonny even let us check out the kitchen at the back of the boat and explained to us what ingredients went into each dish.
            I think I found being on the boat so relaxing because there was no pressure to do anything other than sit back and enjoy the scenery. You are essentially forced into relaxing, which sometimes can be hard to do when there is always so much to see and do. The only downside to the trip was that the fumes from the engine would sometimes waft to the front of the boat. In fact, the houseboat industry surely must be taking an environmental toll on the region, a reality that made me feel a bit guilty. 
            After cruising around for the afternoon, we docked next to a small village at about 5:30 pm and stayed there for the night. Unfortunately, there were other boats parked very closed to ours, but our neighbors weren’t too loud and I don’t know why I thought we’d have the whole village to ourselves. The next morning, we rose early and the boat made the return trip back to Alleppey. 
          We are now in Fort Cochin, a famous colonial enclave, which also happens to be our last destination in India. I'll end this post with a bunch of pictures from the houseboat trip. 

Our dining area and lounge!
Our captain
Our boat! 
Captain and Chef
Sonny the Chef's amazing lunch spread

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Kerala: Wayanad


After Mysore, we took a bus from Mysore to a small city called Kalpetta, which sits nearly in the center of a large valley in Northeastern Kerala and is quite close to several nature and wildlife preserves. Kerala, where we will spend the rest of our time in India, is a comparatively small sliver of a state that runs along the southern most part of India’s western coast. Kerala is primarily famous for its beaches and “backwaters,” which are a series of beautiful and idyllic canals and waterways that begin just a kilometer or two in from the beach.
However, before hitting the backwaters (which is where I am now), our first destination in Kerala was hilly Wayanad, a captivating green valley that is populated by endless tea and coffee plantations and is surrounded by impressive foggy mountain peaks. I picked Wayanad as a destination because it is a good midway point between Mysore and Kerala’s more southern backwaters, meaning we could break up what otherwise would have been an incredibly long bus/train journey. But Wayanad is a great destination in its own right, and I’m not sure why it isn’t a far more popular destination for foreign tourists.
Our bus ride from Mysore went off without a hitch. It was easy to find the correct bus at the Mysore bus stand, the tickets were cheap (roughly $1 per person for a four-hour bus ride), and the ticket conductor on the bus made sure we got off at the right stop. I tried to ignore the driver's lead foot...
In Kalpetta, we stayed at a place called Olives Homestay, which was run by a couple named Biju and Raji. Homestays, which are somewhat similar to B&Bs, are increasingly popular in India. They are essentially guesthouses where the family that runs the place lives on the first floor, and you spend much more time interacting with your hosts than you would at a hotel. Meals are usually home-cooked and are often shared with other guests and sometimes the family itself. It's a good way to interact with Indian people outside of a more touristy-settings, but the downside is that if the guesthouse is remote, you can become dependent on your hosts for all of your food and travel planning. 
The design of Olives was great. There was a covered outdoor  eating area that offered pretty good views of the surrounding area, and our room had a separate entrance away from our host’s actual home. The room itself was clean and spacious, and even had a separate little sunroom. Here is the view from our room:

View from Olives Homestay, Wayanad, Kerala. 
            All that being said, Biju and Raji managed to make us feel slightly uncomfortable during out stay. I’m not sure how to describe what happened without sounding ungrateful or picky, but it felt like they were essentially force-feeding us absurd amounts of food the entire three days we were there. I should preface this minor complaint by first saying that the food was incredibly delicious. It was my first experience with Keralan cooking, which is spicy, but also rich in creative ingredients such as coconut, ginger and cloves. If you’ve ever had Sri Lankan food, Keralan food seems to have a lot of overlap.
            The awkward food situation began right when we arrived. We arrived at about 2pm and hadn’t eaten since early that morning. We inquired about lunch, and Raji informed us that only breakfast and dinner is provided, but that she could offer us a snack of “omelet.” We said that would be great and sat down at the outside dining area. She proceeded to give us a spiced omelet with onions made from at least 8 eggs, a basket of 12 pieces of toast, and potato chips. Halfway through our omelets, she asked if she wanted us to whip up some rice and lentils, and when we were finished, she gave us each an apple and a plate of papaya. If that’s not lunch, I don’t know what is!
            The dinners, which again were super tasty, had a similar vibe. It was difficult to know how much to take from each dish because new dishes kept coming out. One night we were offered curried fish, fried fish, ghee rice, paratha (a delicious doughy bread that falls apart into coils when you pull at it), a light potato curry, a fresh cucumber and tomato salad, hard-boiled eggs in an onion sauce, a mung bean dahl, all followed by a fruit custard for dessert. On another night, about three-quarters of the way through a similarly extravagant meal, Raji brought out a huge plate of home made French fries. They were actually quite good but we were perplexed by their completely superfluous existence. Across all meals, toast was ubiquitous. Why anyone would ever choose to eat toast when there are half a dozen exquisite Keralan dishes to choose from is beyond me.
I don’t mean to complain, and I probably sound spoiled for even writing about this, but I think the experience taught us that perhaps homestays aren’t exactly for us. Hallie and I are pretty independent, and relying on your hosts for meals can rewarding, but can also be a bit maddening, especially when they are shoveling ungodly portions onto your plate at every meal and passive-aggressively expecting you to eat it all.
            I had read that there is good hiking in Wayanad, so on our first full day, we set out to hike in the area near Chembra Peak, which at 2100 meters is the region’s tallest mountain. To get there, Biju helped us hire a driver, who drove us up to the park’s entrance. The scenery on the drive was beautiful, and although the deteriorating roads made it a bumpy ride, the views of the tea plantations were great.

            Our host Raji had told us that morning that the trekking area was only half open because of the monsoon season, and that we might only be able to do 30 minutes in each direction. Not only did the hike take way longer than an hour, but she also neglected to tell us that the hike essentially went straight up the mountainside. In fact, it was one of the more difficult hikes I can remember doing, and by the time we reached the top, I was dripping in sweat and my thighs were burning.
            To access the hike, we had to pay a park entry fee, but fortunately the fee included a guide who led us up the mountain. Our guide didn’t speak too much English and I didn’t catch his name. He set a vigorous pace though, and as he sprinted up the path we struggled to catch up. We weren’t allowed to hike all the way to the top, but we were so beat by the time we reached the final point we didn’t even care. Here are some pictures from the hike:

Our guide waiting for us to catch up. 
Hallie on a ridge. 
Heart shaped lake at the top. 

The way back down.
            After the hike, our driver took us to a locally-famous waterfall, but there isn’t too much to report. Waterfalls are pretty cool! I also took a video to record the sound of this crazy cicada-type bug that populates the local trees. It sounds like a crazy wind-up orgasm or something. It sounds crazy when a bunch of them are going at once.

            The next day, we weren’t too keen in being in the car all day, which seemed to be a necessary part of seeing many sight around Wayanad. So we decided to limit our travels to just one destination: the Edakkal Caves, a small cave complex that also involved a steep climb and offered great views. There is a saying about caves: if you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen ‘em all. I agree with this statement for the most part, but this cave was cool because it was up at the very top of a mountainside, and had ancient carvings.

            As seems to have become our M.O., we spent the rest of the day wandering around the residential areas of Kalpetta. Other than having a fair amount of hills, the main drag of the town wasn’t particularly interesting. But once we got off the main road, we found some really nice neighborhoods with beautiful, impressive homes. Unlike Wayanad, which still felt urban, these neighborhoods felt much more removed from the city, even though they were only a few blocks away from the main street. Many of the houses had nice gates and lush gardens. We wandered around for a few hours and then returned to Olives Homestay. I wanted to upload some pictures that Hallie took of this walk, but it's taking too long to upload them, so perhaps next time... 
            I really enjoyed our time in Wayanad. Each afternoon, while we were sitting on the covered dining area, I would watch the heavy clouds roll in from the mountains, and one each of the three days we were there, it would start pouring rain at about 5pm like clockwork. The rain would cool down the valley, and was always fun to watch.

            We’ve been down in Alleppey, Kerala for the past few days (which means I’ve fallen behind on updating this blog). It’s really cool down here and I have lots to share. We did an amazing kayak trip yesterday and in just a few hours we are heading out for a 24-hour houseboat ride, which should be awesome. Hope to make another post soon!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


           As always, so much has happened since I last posted. In fact, by my calculations, we walked over 22 miles over the last three days! On Friday, we conquered a long day of travel, which brought us from Jaipur, Rajasthan all the way down to Mysore, Karnataka, which is one of south India’s iconic cities. Friday was Independence Day in India, and many cars had Indian flags affixed to their hoods. Other than this token display of nationalism, however, it generally felt like any other day.
To make the voyage, we rose at 5am and first took an early flight from Jaipur to Bangalore by way of Delhi. At the airport, I was overcome by a wave of nausea, which I deeply feared was going to evolve into a wicked case of “Delhi Belly.” However, after an hour or so I was feeling fine again, and perhaps it was just the early rise that threw me off. The plane was filled with middle-class Indians, who primarily wore Western clothing and frequently mixed English phrases and sentences into their conversations.
For the second leg of the trip, we took a 3-hour train ride from Bangalore to Mysore, arriving just before 6pm.

Bangalore City Train Station
To get to the train station in Bangalore, we had to take a taxi from the airport, an experience that thoroughly turned my knuckles white. It was if the driver was attempting to break the local records for “number of inches between cars while tailgating,” “number of cars passed on the highway in any given 30 second period,” and “percentage of trip engaging in activities #1 and #2 with only one hand while speaking on a cellphone with the other.”
            In fact, perhaps this is a good moment to briefly reflect upon the safety habits of India’s motorists. There are none. By all accounts, it is the Wild West out here. There are no lanes. Perhaps less than 1% of intersections are equipped with traffic lights. People transport things on motorbikes that one might struggle to fit into the trunk of a small car, such as a bundle of 12-foot steel poles, a 100-pound bag of grain, or four other human beings (admittedly one was a baby). Determining which vehicle has the right of way, whether a car, motorbike or auto-rickshaw, is resolved by an aggressive dance of honking and acceleration that essentially amounts to a game of chicken. If you want to pass another vehicle, you honk anywhere from 1-7 times, which functions less as a warning and more of a declaration: you are passing them, so they best get out of the way… now. Honking is pandemic. It is a way of life. I don’t think video truly captures the experience, but here are two short videos of us driving around in Agra.   

Anyways, while we were driving in Bangalore from the airport to the train station, in addition to holding on for dear life, I also had a moment to develop a first impression about south India, a place I have never been to before. First, there are palm trees everywhere! Also, the streets are substantially cleaner here. Gone are the random piles of rubble, garbage, and who knows what else. Well, maybe I should just say mostly gone. Still, it has been a great pleasure to discover Mysore on foot by walking, as one can look up and around instead of straight down (which was often necessary in Jaipur to avoid stepping in you know what).
South India is also known for having a more friendly, laid-back populace in comparison to the north. After spending a few days in Mysore, however, I’m not sure I can agree with such a generalization. From my experience, the more apt comparison is not between north and south, but between tourist/hotel areas, and non-tourist/hotel areas. In both north and south, tourist sites are swarming with “touts” and “hawkers” just waiting to give you misinformation (“the palace is closed today, but I can take you to some good sites instead…”), and rickshaw drivers linger around hotels just waiting to get your fare by any means necessary. But once you get away from these areas, people in India are kind, welcoming and honest. For this reason, we ended up spending a good chunk of our time in Mysore meandering through its quiet suburban neighborhoods, and the people we encountered on these serene streets were some of the nicest people to be found anywhere.
Still, I cannot deny that our first 24 hours or so in Mysore were a bit rough. After the long voyage, we wanted nothing more than to settle into a clean hotel room for the evening, develop a plan for the following day, and rest up. Unfortunately, I erred in selecting a suitable place to stay in Mysore, as the hotel we checked into had an aggressive staff that delivered a healthy dose of hassle. On top of that, the room itself was quite filthy, with tattered sheets, stained towels, and a mysterious bug or two. Because of the holiday, the hotels in Mysore were booked solid through the weekend, but luckily I was able to secure a reservation for our last two nights here at a rather wacky (but super clean) place called the Parklane Hotel. I actually really enjoyed staying at the Parklane. The food was some what lackluster, but they had a nice outdoor dining hall and offered live music each night. The quirky d├ęcor, which incorporated quasi-tiki hut vibes, was also a nice touch. Most importantly, the room was spotless and the staff was friendly and helpful. I give you Parklane’s most recent message to its patrons:

Parklane Hotel 
             Mysore’s “tourists” sites were nothing to write home about, and I won’t spend too much time describing them. We went to the Royal Palace, which was gaudy to the max, but ultimately rather forgettable. The most enduring memory I will have from visiting the palace is likely to be the quest to purchase our entry tickets, in which I had to elbow my way to the ticket window, insert my hand and arm through a tiny window, and wait until a clerk whom I could not see relieved me of my money. I then had to hold on for dear life so that my hand would remain inside the slot while the clerk retrieved my tickets and change, and to stop my entire body from floating back out to the periphery of the ticket window.
            A much more gratifying experience was visiting a place on the outskirts of town called Chamundi Hills. At the top lies Chamundeshwari Temple, which proved quite popular with locally and was swarming with devotees, although I wasn’t sure if they were Mysoreans or domestic Indian tourists. The line to enter the temple was so long that we decided to skip it entirely and just explore the surrounding grounds. The standard offering appeared to be a basket of flowers and coconuts, and coconut venders lined the perimeter of the temple. There was also a place outside the temple where one could smash the coconuts, an act whose religious significance escaped me.

To get to the temple, you can either take a bus that delivers you straight to the top of the mountain, or you can start at the bottom and walk up “1,000” steps. The vast majority of visitors go for the bus, but we opted for the steps, alongside a few other brave souls. Whether it is actually 1,000 steps I have no idea, but it was physically challenging to say the least. Along the way, we passed several young women who were stopping at each step to adorn it with a single dab of orange and red powder.

            Another highlight was our visit to Mysore’s most famous market, which is called the Devaraja Market. The market was a tad touristy, but managed to maintain its authenticity, as it remains Mysore’s main fruit, flower and vegetable market. We went early in the morning, and it was nice to soak up the vibes when it wasn’t too crowded. The coolest thing there was probably the mounds of flowers which the florists created by stringing the flowers together and then carefully laying them down in a circular pattern. The veggie sellers had some nice displays, but the flowers couldn’t be beat. We also came back later in the day and saw the market in full swing. Unfortunately, this also meant that the touts were out. At one point, a guy followed me around trying to sell me this weird box shaped like a cat. Our conversation went something like this (I am paraphrasing, but this was the basic thrust of the conversation):

Man: I will sell you this cat box for only 700 rupees.
Me: I don’t want it, thanks though.
Man: It is a box that looks like a cat, 700 rupees is a great price.
Me: I don’t want it.
Man: OK, for you, a special price of only 600 rupees.
Me: I don’t want the cat box.
Man: 500.
Me: I don’t know how else to explain this to you, but I’m not interested in purchasing the cat box. I don’t care what the price is. I don’t want it.
Man: This other box looks like an elephant, look!
Me: I don’t want that.
Man: Ok, my final offer is both boxes for only 500!
Me: I don’t want the boxes. Please leave me alone.

Then, as we walked away, he busted out a wooden flute and started playing a stereotypically “Indian” riff. As we increased our distance from him, I could hear him yelling about the flute, but I didn’t hear the price. Anyways, here are some pictures from the market.

            As I briefly mentioned earlier, our best experiences in Mysore by far involved nothing more than meandering away from the city center and exploring the city’s quieter, residential neighborhoods. We did this several times throughout our three days in Mysore, and would just zigzag back and forth down the streets once we found a pleasant neighborhood. We saw some beautifully painted homes, and also met a ton of cute kids, who at times would follow us around and giggle whenever we acknowledged their presence. Many of them would ask for “your country kind please.” It took me a while to figure out that they were asking for U.S. currency. Some children were quite bold in their requests, and after a few days I had run out of quarters to give away.
Another memorable moment involved a little boy named Jahul. As we were walking down a side street, a little boy stood there and stared at us, but refrained from saying hello to us. I decided to say hello, but instead of saying hello back, he ran into his house and disappeared. I thought nothing of it and we kept walking. But a moment later we heard a shout, and he waved for us to come back. It turned out that he had made several little Ganesh sculptures out of clay and had run into his house to get them so he could show us. Here is a picture of him running into his house (which Hallie managed to snap), as well as a picture of him displaying his sculptures (with another boy I presume is his little brother). Below are additional pictures from our time spent wandering around Mysore. And for the record, any picture of me with children was taken at the children's request, not mine! 

Jahul running into his house
Jahul, his brother, and their Ganesha sculptures
Schoolgirl with large backpack
Man hacking coconut with machete

Hallie enjoying the coconut water
Unbelievably cute kid with impeccable fashion sense 

"District Hopcoms"

Me and the boys
Ready to Ride

Bathroom Dos and Don'ts

Cool Blue House
We’ve also had some great food in Mysore. In addition to typical south Indian food such as dosas and idly, the “curries” here are also super good and quite different from the north Indian varieties. In the north, the sauces are on steroids: super thick, super oily, and super salty (but in my opinion also super delicious). In the south, by contrast, the dishes are still spicy, but are otherwise more subdued. Some of them are almost like a spicy minestrone soup, with a thin but powerful broth containing actual chunks of identifiable vegetables such as carrots, peas, potatoes, and even beets. Some of these dishes are known as “Andhra” style, which I assume means they come from the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Our favorite place was a joint called “Hotel RRR Restaurant.” The food was served on a big banana leaf and free refills of any of the dishes were available on request. We went there twice, and on both occasions, I left having eaten way too much!

Hotel RRR 
We also had an amazing lunch at a placed called Anu’s Bamboo Hut, which sits way out in the suburb of Gokalum. Gokalum is where many of Mysore’s yoga centers are located, and lots of westerners come here for several weeks to study Ashtanga yoga. The food at Anu’s was simple and fresh, but still retained a distinct Indian flare. We sat next to some middle-aged ladies who came all the way from Connecticut (the first American’s we’ve met on this trip) to study in Gokalum. They were obsessed with not getting sick in India, and they were impressed by our willingness to eat at “local” restaurants. I’ll end this post with two photos from Anu’s. Until next time…