Monday, 25 April 2016

Holi $h!#

Day 256- Our early morning flight took us from Kochi to Delhi. There was no time to waste so we went straight to the train station, after some Subway of course, to catch a train from Delhi to Mathura. 

Mathura is not on the tourist beat but it is the birthplace of the Hindu God Lord Krishna, which makes it the top spot for Indians to go and celebrate the world famous Holi Festival. Even if you have never heard of the festival, I am sure you've seen the photos of people throwing powdered paint at each other in the streets. That, is Holi and I had been waiting a long time for this moment. 

Mathura is definitely, in no way, a touristy destination and lacked a lot of the common amenities that the more well visited locations in India have. It was quickly apparent that we had found ourselves in the 'real India' and it was definitely more in line with some of the feedback we'd received from others before arriving in India. 

We were extremely tired from our long travel day, so we found some food and got ready for an early night. But first we had a happy reunion with one of our friends and guides from Breathe In Life who was on a scouting mission to see if Holi in Mathura would be a good addition for their next guided trip. 

Day 257- We woke up early and excited with anticipation for Holi festival. We dressed in ready to throw-out clothing and joined the madness of the colour celebration. 

Our experience was one of conflicting contradiction. What I mean by this, is that we would have moments of fun and joy mixed with moments of appallingly offensive behaviour that scarred my view of this controversial festival. Straight out of the gate I realized what I had to look forward to for the rest of the day. As we hailed a tuk tuk, a small group of Indian boys came over to share their colours with us. While we were trying to get into the tuk tuk, one or two of the boys literally smashed me in the face with the colourful powder. Afterwards, the same guy furiously rubbed some black ink on my face. I grabbed his hand, twisting with all the force I could muster and told him to 'never do that again!' I will admit that this didn't start me off with the best impression but I was ready to get to the temple to take some pictures. As we walked down the long street towards the temple, the festival was in full swing. All around us colour filled the sky and people could be heard saying 'HAPPY HOLI' to one another. I had read a lot about holi prior to going and although I read many warnings about women and their experiences at the festival, I still wanted to see it for myself. However, I did take some of the cautions to heart and made sure to cross my arm over my chest when hugging the locals. You see, as a custom of the festival, people who are playing holi, take the coloured powder and wipe it across another players face, they then hug the individual who was blessed, twice, moving their head on one side, then on the other. (similar to how the french kiss on each cheek)
Although my arm crossing manoeuvre gave me peace of mind, it didn't stop locals from trying to aggressively grab a feel when they hugged me. You could feel the wild mob mentality of the place and it had our senses on full alert. We realized that we would need to be careful and secondary to my defensive arm crossing manoeuvre, we quickly developed another defensive strategy. As I had mentioned before, Indians love taking photos of themselves, so this was our second defensive tactic. Anytime things would get too aggressive or the group surrounding me was too large, I would hold my camera out and say 'stop stop let's take a photo'. It worked. 

Okay, let's take a selfie everyone... it worked again. Although the man beside me squeezed my backside while taking this photo... no not Mike, that wouldn't be so offensive. 

Our third defensive manoeuvre was used when we needed a break from the festival. By standing with Mike and staying with our backs against the wall, we were able to take small timeouts as we tried to make our way down the street. It was the only way to keep from getting attacked with powder as the 'bad ones' would always come from behind while you were surrounded by a large group of locals. I was still trying to enjoy myself and not let the inappropriateness ruin a day that I had long awaited. I was definitely happy to see how colourful we'd become. 

Baby, that is one BADASS beard!

I didn't know cows play holi too.


As we would step back out into the street, it wasn't long before I'd disappear amongst the crowd and left Mike looking around anxiously trying to spot me within the coloured group. It's crazy how quickly you get separated with so many people and it was unnerving. Everyone gets powder rubbed in their faces... that is part of holi... but it was very clear that women, especially foreign women, got more than the usual treatment. Mike and I would get stopped by some men who would begin by throwing/rubbing powder in our face and within seconds we would be surrounded by a mob of locals, all taking their turns much more aggressively forcing the powder into my mouth and eyes and passing me from man to man to get hugged, sometimes with ill intentions. The issue is that some of the locals are not inappropriate so you want to keep playing but that would just leave us open to more poor behaviour... We had had enough. 

I didn't have the patience or the ability to be ok with the behaviour... not that I should have needed to and I wanted to get out of there. I asked a store owner if I could go to the roof of the building overlooking the front of the temple and he agreed. 

Once upstairs, a woman invited us over to her balcony where we could watch the spectacle below. 

Loved seeing all the men drive by on their bikes just covered in colour. How they could even see I don't know. 

It was during our stay on this balcony that my opinion of Holi changed completely. We watched foreigner after foreigner get pounced by men and we saw their reactions each time they were groped. We were also able to pick out the men who would continuously target the women, waiting with paint in hand to strike. At one point, a group of beautiful Indian women, dressed in clean sparkly saris were making their way to the temple to celebrate this religious event. It was obvious that they were not playing holi but it didn't stop the men from dousing them in dyed water and coloured powder. The women literally ran for safety while trying to cover themselves with their scarves. 

In the next photo the women are huddled together trying to enter the temple from the ladies side and the boy at the bottom right is throwing blue dye on them. The truly alarming observation was that the locals adults were not reprimanding this behaviour. In fact, some of them were joining in. It is a very scary thing to see a large group of people acting in this way and an even scarier thing when they aren't even trying to hide their poor behaviour. It was clear that society had given a pass to its members on this 'Holi' day. 

The lovely woman, from the home we were hiding in, offered us some lunch while we waited for the madness to extinguish. This was a great surprise as we had not eaten the entire day and it was almost 3 in the afternoon. Most store owners close on Holi, which made it difficult for us to feed ourselves... so we just didn't.  

The woman was so kind to invite us into her home and wanted nothing more from us than a few photos! haha Indians love their photos. 

She also shared her opinion of the festival. She said, 'although the religious aspect is sacred, she does not partake in the colour portion as it is not safe'. She also mentioned that her son called her from down the street, where we'd begun our walk to the temple and said a foreigner had had her clothes completely ripped off and she was crying. That was it for us. We were done with Holi. 

It is very hard to write this post because by looking at the photos, it looks like a great, fun time. And I won't say that it was all bad. I love my photos and being able to capture this festival on camera was my entire motivation. However, after seeing how myself and others were treated, it makes it difficult to support such an event. If a woman asked me if she should go to Holi, I would say absolutely do not go to Mathura. I would recommend going somewhere more touristy and peaceful like Rishikesh or Goa. Unfortunately the authentic experience isn't always the best. In this case, Mathura doesn't see a lot of tourism. When you combine that with alcohol, drugs, a removal of moral standards and a reason to touch and hug women, the outcome will never be a positive one. This was only my experience and my opinion but I hope it can help others who have aspirations of attending Holi one day. 

Day 258- We took the train from Mathura back to Delhi and enjoyed the excitement of the general class seating for a cheap $5 ticket. 


The locals on the train were just as excited to have us on there with them and many of the men sitting across from us took turns coming over to shake our hands. They even sent their youngest son over for a hand shake... Our celebrity made no sense to us but we were happy to hang out.

The men across from us were Muslim and handed out pieces of paper to those sitting around them. The paper wasn't in english but I had figured it had something to do with sharing their religious views. The men sitting below us were Hindu and the two groups engaged in a friendly conversation about religion. I would catch a word or three every once in a while, so I knew the reason for the conversation. At one point when Mike stood next to them, the muslim man grabbed his attention and asked "who was the first man on earth?" Mike responded with a carefully crafted answer, "well, in my opinion, the first man on earth was Adam", the muslim guy said "HA" with triumph to the hindu gentlemen he was discussing the matter with. Haha It was as if Mike was the aficionado on the matter and they turned to him to to settle their disagreements. Mike, knowing politics and religion can be touchy subjects always gave very politically correct answers but whatever he would say was accepted by both parties as 'the truth!' It was hilarious. 

 So.. a muslim, a catholic and a hindu walk onto a train... 

We thoroughly enjoyed our general class train ticket back to Delhi. Once we arrived, we went straight to the shopping mall in Gurgaon where we spent the day writing post cards and the blog and enjoying some other lovely amenities that can only be found at the mall. That night we hopped on a train to what would be our last taste of India.



Saturday, 23 April 2016

A Smidgen Of Each Religion

Day 254- We knew little about the destination where we booked a room accept for the fact that they had a Jewish settlement. Our room was in the city of Fort Cochin, also known as Fort Kochi, in a family's home called Aldos Ark homestay. Our room was adorable and reminded me of a grandmothers home. It was almost too color coordinated with floral patterns everywhere. Only $14 dollars a night.

We didn't have much day left so we did some minor exploring of our new surroundings and settled in for dinner at a place called Dal Roti. I had the channa masala and Mike tried the butter chicken. The place was swarming with tourists and had a perfect rating on trip advisor so Mike braved having meat for the first time in India. He said it was really good and no incident to report, so it looked like it was the right call. 

More importantly, the time had finally come for me to try Gulab Jamun (sweet, delicious Indian balls covered in sugar). I had eaten these deserts many times back in Calgary but I was looking forward to the real deal. A British couple sitting beside us was fascinated that we had access to these sugary deserts back in Calgary and as my excitement was so apparent, Mike took the opportunity to capture my reaction with a photo. Haha. 

I'm glad that he did. This was me saying 'whoa' as the treat melted in my mouth. Haha My sister would die!!!! 


We enjoyed a lengthly walk home, taking in the charm of this romantic, european-esk Indian city. 

The night was one of our worst, as the heat and humidity was suffocating our bodies and it couldn't be ignored. 

Day 255-After the lovely owner of our homestay took me to book some train tickets, we set out for a day of exploring. 

First stop, Jew Town. No, I'm not being politically incorrect, we we're in fact going to a place called Jew Town and it started on a road called Jew Street. This was a destination that we added to our list once I read it on a blog. Back home in Calgary my boss is Jewish and I have been lucky enough to learn a lot about Judaism over the past 9 years from him. I was interested to find out what kind of influence Judaism had in India and I figured he might be interested as well. This was just one more religion that we found ourselves brushing shoulders with as we travelled through India. 

Little Jewish symbols continue to decorate the side streets of this long standing Jewish community. I read that the Jews settled in this area as early as the 12th century.


Star of David and Menorah accents.


Apparently, the Jews that settled in the Fort Chochin area, are the first Jewish settlers in India. The main attraction for the area was the Jewish Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1568. 


The inside of the synagogue was beautifully decorated. Apparently the synagogue continues to be a place of worship and still has a congregation. 


Most of the storefront signs in the area are named with some variation of the word Shalom (a salutation meaning peace), which I assume were all later additions to cater to the tourism in the area. 

The guy below made us laugh quite a bit. He jumped up from his spot on the sidewalk to yell at us to come see his shop as he pointed up to his sign that said 'Hassle Free Shop'... Really?


We have a bit of a tradition at my work back home to buy our boss a trinket every time he gives us time off to go on a trip and he puts it on the mantle at the jewellery store. So where better to buy his souvenir than in Jew Town, Kerala, India. After we shopped, hassle free, we continued our day of exploration. Does it count as 'hassling' if the store owner follows you around silently, breathing over your shoulder and continues to show you item after item, even after you've said 'no thanks'? I guess I did end up buying something so maybe I will bring this new sales technique back to Canada and use it in the Jewellery store! You can thank me later David! 

We walked around for a bit and I found this beautiful wall. I couldn't help but stop for a photo. 


Next stop, the Chinese fishing nets. This incredible invention was used by early Chinese settlers but apparently was introduced by the greatest explorers of all time... the Portuguese. 

The device is perfectly weighted so that the weight of a single man standing on the wood beams of the netted part, can lower the net with his own weight. The net stays under water for a few minutes, then is raised up to show the few fish caught in it. 

Mike and I were watching the process so intently that the men offered Mike to join in. Here is a time lapse video of the ingenious structure. You can see Mike go out and check the net before retaking his position and lowering the net back down.


Mike and I were wondering if those giant rocks ever come loose! 

We stopped for two coconuts and continued our tour. 

Next stop was a Catholic Church that had quite the history of its own.


As you can see below this was the first european church built in India. Take one guess as to who was responsible for erecting this beauty of a church. Yup you got it, the Portuguese!! 


And not just any Portuguese but the most famous explorer of all, Vasco Da Gama himself, who is pretty much a hero in Portugal. Vasco Da Gama is known for finding the ocean route between Europe and Asia. He was the first european to reach India by sea in the late 1400's. According to wikipedia, today, he is still considered one of the greatest explorers of all time and his discovery of the Asian-European route remains as a milestone in the world's history because of its impact on global imperialism and its roll in sea trade between these two continents. 

He actually died in Fort Chochin and was buried in this very church. Although, years later the Portuguese wanted him back, so today his tomb remains in the church but his body lies in a monastary in Lisbon, Portugal. 



Next up we had a quick stop at the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica but it was closed to the public so I guess we wouldn't get to see the insides of this beautiful building. We were quite surprised by the vast amount of Catholic influence in the south of India and it wasn't uncommon to see entire neighbourhoods with beautiful stone and marble crosses on their front lawns. It was nice to experience a little of our own religion in India, with so much faith being practiced all around us


We got word that there was a celebration happening at a Hindu temple nearby so we got in a cab and headed out of our small city to a nearby town. When we got there, hundreds of people stood under a decorated canvas and waited for the excitement to begin. We had asked our guesthouse host about the festival and he said it would be nice to see but he warned us to be careful. Elephants were the main attraction of the event and he said to stay clear of them because of the many accidents that occur each year when the elephants 'go wild'! If you're bored, look on YouTube with the search line, 'Elephants Kerala' and you will see what he's talking about. 

And then we saw the beautiful beasts. Decorated with floral garlands and gold headdresses, they didn't look scary at all. 


11 of these giant creatures stood side by side with hundreds of people crowded around them waiting to begin their march. 

We could feel the tension amongst the crowd and we even saw an elephant run forward at one point and people didn't hesitate to run, push and shove to get out of the elephants way, in a panic! I didn't like the chains on the elephants and couldn't help but feel like there was good reason for the elephants to freak out! It was hot, loud and must have been super uncomfortable for the giants. I felt bad for them.

We left before the march got under way. 

While writing this entry, I looked online to find the name of this festival and discovered some sickening truths about the abuse these elephants receive. It is heart breaking and I regret supporting such an event. 

We made our way back to Fort Kochi and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Kashi, a quaint little garden hideway with fresh soup and sandwiches. As we left the restaurant we were stopped behind a long line of locals holding candles. 

We stopped to listen to the words they were speaking and quickly realized that they were doing the stations of the cross in preparation for Easter. 

It was still a week before Easter and we knew we would not be in a Catholic area to celebrate when it arrived, so we seized  the opportunity and joined the procession. We walked along the streets with the locals stopping at each station around the town before ending up at the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica that we had visited earlier in the day. It had been closed earlier and I am so happy that we got to go back. The church may have been the nicest we'd ever seen while travelling. It was old, the details were intricate, the design was unique and colours were vibrant. The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica was built in 1505 and somehow it still seemed more modern than a lot of newer churches while still maintaining some of the most beautiful 16th century art we had ever seen. It reminded Mike and I of the art in the Sistine Chapel, it was so pretty. We stuck around after the mass ended and took a few photos.

The stations of the cross, painted on the ceiling. 


Beautiful tile decorated each and every arch. 

We had the best visit in Fort Kochi and if our day proved anything, it's that Fort Kochi is a charming city with lots of culture and history. Our day consisted of some Jewish influence, some Portuguese history, a hindu festival, the stations of the cross in a catholic church and ended off with the muslim prayer call blasting in the streets at night time. These are the unexpected discoveries that make travelling so addicting. 

Day 256- We tried to sleep for a few hours before waking to catch a taxi to the airport. Once again it was too hot to sleep, especially with a looming wake up call at 3 am. We ended up getting to the airport way too early and experienced another first... a closed airport. All I wanted was some sleep. 

Now off to experience another Hindu celebration.


Tuesday, 19 April 2016


Day 251-The train ride was great and after a good sleep, I didn't have anymore crazy thoughts about wanting to go home. What was I thinking anyway? We arrived in Alleppey, Kerala in the early afternoon and checked into our simple and cheap room at Johnson's. 

We took the less expensive option by declining AC and it was probably one of the worst decisions we'd made on the trip. The thing about AC is that 'you don't know you need it until you neeeeeeed it!' It's really difficult to explain how hot it was but let's just say I was a constant puddle of sweat. 

I needed more internet time so I found the one spot listed on google that said they had good internet. Dad's Cafe. We searched... high and low. Two tuk tuks and a hot walk later and we still couldn't seem to find it. Nobody had ever heard of it! Although, this was a great chance to see the town we'd be spending the next few days in and it was beautiful. Not to mention my health meter was the highest it had been in a week.

Canals filled with bright green water were a lovely surprise as we explored the city. 

It felt like we had stepped out of India and into a tropical Amsterdam that had been taken over by Indians. The vibe was chill and it seemed we were getting further and further away from the hustle of Delhi. 

We decided to forget the search for Dad's Cafe and instead took a tuk tuk to the beach in hopes of finding a spot with coffee, wifi and AC. On our way, I caught a glance of a cafe out of the corner of my eye but we were well on our way to the beach. Mike walked around when we arrived and determined that there was nothing available so we asked the driver to take us back the way we came. He stopped at the cafe I'd spotted on the way to the beach and lo and behold, it was Dad's Cafe. DAD we found you!! (insert wide eyed emoticon here)

We both couldn't believe the chances and walked into the cafe. The decor was trendy, they had AC, the smell of fresh coffee filled the air and most of all, the wifi was the fastest and most reliable wifi we'd experienced to date in India. It was obviously meant to be. What a find! Turns out the dad who owns it, also works for one of India's most well known tele communications companies, which is why the wifi was so good. We stayed late, uploaded photos, movies and caught up with the family.

Day 252-Alleppey, Kerala is known for their numerous lakes and lagoons that connect to create long chains of canals. Our reason for coming to Kerala was to experience these famous backwaters. We hadn't booked a boat because like the houseboat rentals of Halong Bay, we had heard many horror stories of the boats condition and we wanted to see the product before we paid. Based off of the suggestion of a fellow blogger, we went to the docks in the morning with the intention of finding a boat that we liked for a same day departure. As soon as we arrived, we had many men trying to bring us to their boat, all saying what a great deal we would get. As per the blog tips, we looked at three different boats, walked on them and saw them with our own eyes, discussed a price and then chose our favourite. We went with a boat called 'Why Not?' and it was definitely one of the nicer boats parked at the docks. We paid $160 for one night and two days on the beautiful backwaters with all the meals included. We went home, packed our bags and went back to start our trip. 

Lovely bathroom. 


We were given two coconuts to start the journey and off we went. We put on some Indian inspired music by Desert Dwellers, turned the volume to max and let the sounds wash over us as we departed on another great adventure.

Being that it was off season, we didn't have to share the water with too many other boats and it was truly peaceful and serene. The only other boat in sight was the local fishing boat you see below. 

Lunch was served shortly after. Every meal we received while on the boat was an assortment of  delicious local treats. 


After lunch we went upstairs to the viewing deck to enjoy our surroundings from up high.

How could this be India, it was just so different from anything we'd seen, up to this point.

Mike smoking a stogie with a beer in hand and the world at his feet.  

Great spot to read a book. 

I got an idea for a photo from our friends at Breathe in Life and it was time to create some magic.

Whoaaa hang on Mike that wind is out of control!!!!

We stopped for a break and went for a swim. 

We parked the boat along some rice fields for the night and spent the rest of our time much like the day. Reading, relaxing, eating and talking about life. 

As the sun started to set we took a walk along the rice fields and admired the perfect beauty of our location.


Day 253- We woke up after a solid sleep and began our transition back to land. 

The two day, one night option that we chose for the house boating trip definitely satisfied our hunger for nature. If money was no option we would have loved to go for another night, which would have taken us deeper into the backwaters but for what we could afford, the experience was perfect. 

We took a tuk tuk from the docks and went straight to Dad's Cafe. We had no hotel booked and we were in no rush to get anywhere, so we spent the day at Dad's using the trustee internet. There was a wedding happening next door and about a dozen kids stood in the window behind Mike staring at me for a good portion of the day. It seemed that most of the kids came from their villages to attend the wedding with their parents and many had never seen a foreigner before. They made their many rounds into Dad's to say hello and use the little english they had until they would get shy and run back outside. More than anything they kept asking me to take photos of them.... that's one thing any traveller in India will notice right away.... Indians love taking photos, especially when their in them. Their selfie game is on point! 


Eventually, Dad had to ask them to stay outside because they were coming in and out so much that we couldn't get anything done. So I went outside and took one last photo...or two...or three, four, five.

We had made quite the impression on Dad and Dad's dad for that matter. So much so that he even went home to make us some fresh samosas. To thank them for their generosity, we promised to promote their new coffee shop online. Dad's Cafe, best Wifi and Coffee in Kerala. 

Day 254- After some breakfast and coffee at Dad's Cafe, we hopped on a local train to take us to our next destination. It cost us a whopping 60 cents for a one hour journey. 

We really didn't know much about our next spot other than they had a famous Jewish settlement there and it was near the airport. What else would we find?