The Birds of Kerala

One morning I awoke from a bit of racket outside on my balcony. You see, I’ve taken to sleeping with the windows open when there’s a breeze off the ocean.

A crow was sitting on the railing looking as if it wanted something. I propped myself up and said, “Good morning, what are you doing here?” To which he replied, “Caw!” and promptly flew away.

I got up to take a look and saw a lovely yellow parakeet, clearly frightened and distressed, sitting on the balcony floor. It watched me as I closed the windows, but beyond that, it didn’t move.

Little yellow parakeet

Little yellow parakeet

After breakfast, I went back to check on it and when it saw me this time, it tried to fly up to the air conditioner, but it wasn’t able to get enough lift, and ended up landing in a corner, thankfully obscured by any passing predator birds. I left it alone so it could hopefully regain its strength, and I got ready for work. When I checked again about an hour later, it had gone.

I think it may have been a caged parakeet, as I’ve seen many of those here, and I didn’t find this particular one in my Birds of Kerala book (by C Sashikumar, Praveen J, Muhamed Jafer Palot and PO Nameer).

Except for the color, it reminded me of the parakeet my sister and I had as children. Ours was green and so we named her Kelly. While her cage was covered at night when she slept, during the day, our mother let her out.

Kelly had a small rug at the bottom of her cage with a Ferris wheel and other toys. She used to fly to the top of the Ferris wheel and ride it down. She would fly through the house, perching where she felt safe, but her favorite spot was on top of a lamp shade on a dresser in our parent’s bedroom. Here, she could look at herself in the mirror and say, “pretty bird.” She had quite a vocabulary, but her words had an interesting lilt to them thanks to our English mum.

One day, Kelly got out and was flying around the neighborhood. We had everyone calling to her, trying to get her to fly down and land on one of our outstretched fingers, but she seemed to be enjoying her freedom. Our mother said she would come back home before dark because she had no other home to go to. So, we put her cage on the front porch with the door open and sure enough, as afternoon faded, she flew back ‘home.’ We closed the door and took her back inside and she never ventured outside again.

In my mind, I see this little yellow parakeet flying back ‘home.’ After its experience with the crow, I’m sure it was missing the safety of its cage.

The Birds of Kerala is a very large book, filled with amazing birds of all kinds with long tails and bright colors. Many of them are marked as vulnerable, threatened, near endangered, or endangered. Some are near extinct with dates from when and where one was last seen.

I doubt I’ll see many of the birds from this book, but I do see quite a few water birds and one magnificent Brahminy Kite that presumably lives nearby at the Mangalavanum bird sanctuary and frequently flies over the waters near my flat.

I first saw these amazing raptors last summer at Alleppey and thought they were Eagles because of their bright white heads. I was told they were Hawks, and while they are listed in a category with Hawks and Eagles, the Birds of Kerala shows them as Brahminy Kites. They have beautiful rust colored bodies, with black triangles on their wing tips. I can see the triangles clearly on the one that glides below me on the wind currents.

Brahminy Kite

Brahminy Kite

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a whole row of Bee-eaters sitting on a wire, and beautiful Small Blue Kingfishers that look nothing like those in the Northeastern US. Each night at dusk, Swallows fly outside my office window catching mosquitoes. (I’d like to invite them in to take care of the pesky ones inside my office!)

Birds on a wire (Blue-tailed Bee-eaters)

Birds on a wire (Blue-tailed Bee-eaters)

The other night, I dreamt about a magnificent bird with iridescent blue feathers and a very long tail. Upon waking, I looked through the Birds of Kerala to see if I could find it, but it wasn’t there. I guess that’s what I get for reading Dr. Seuss before bedtime.

Today the Brahminy Kite was back with a friend. It must be mating season in Kerala.

Birds I’ve spotted and have been able to identify:
Little Cormorant, Little Egret, Median Egret, Cattle Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black Kite, Brahminy Kite, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Sandpiper, Brown-headed Gull, Black-headed Gull, Tern (not sure which one), Small Blue Kingfisher, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Common Swallow, Large Pied Wagtail, Red-whiskered Bulbul, House Sparrow, House Crow and many, many Pigeons — but not as many as in Rittenhouse Square.

Captured in flight

Captured in flight

The man with a most unusual hat

About a week ago, I was traveling the typical route to work, my camera at the ready to get any interesting drive-by shots, when I saw him.

We had almost come to the by-pass and there he was, standing by the side of the road with what appeared to be a very large hat upon his head. As we got closer, I couldn’t quite make it out, but it was quite colorful and very grand indeed. Now, we were upon him and I could see that there were, in fact, chickens festooned upon his head. I raised my camera and just then, the shutter closed and I missed the shot.

I know, sounds rather astonishing, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you it took me by surprise!

The man was tall and very thin, with a disproportionately thick mustache. He was dressed in a maroon shirt and was wearing a typical Indian ‘skirt’ (dhoti) pulled up above his knees and tied at his waist, as is the custom on very hot days. His ‘hat’ was brilliantly balanced on his head.

The chickens were laying in such a way as to appear sleeping, but clearly they were not, as they weren’t moving at all, and it would have been a fine trick indeed were they still living. I don’t know how they were tied together, but you couldn’t see their feet at all, only their bodies and heads.

They were plump with beautiful feathers in an array of colors; feathers the color of saffron with the ends tipped in India ink. Others followed in burnt sienna, burnished gold and a mottled coffee and cream. They were lying, with one head resting against the next one’s wing and so forth in a circle, like a big feathery wreath of chickens.

I wanted to ask him how he came to be wearing such a unique head dress, but he had disappeared into the crowd before I had the chance.

I look for him every day now at the same place hoping to catch sight of him so I can confirm my story, but I fear I shall never see the chicken man again.

I’ve seen so much here in India and most of the things I’ve seen, I see again. But I have told many people here about the man with the chicken hat and they seem astonished as well. So even though I continue to look for him, I believe that was one sight that will live only in my memory.

For now, I hope I’ve described this well enough for you to see it too, if you just close your eyes.

Wellness through Ayurveda

Ever since I arrived here, I’ve heard about the marvels of Ayurveda. Actually, I’d heard about it before I got here, but apparently Kerala is the heart of it, so I decide to sign up and see what it’s all about.

They recommend a minimum of seven Ayurvedic treatments, one per day lasting about 1.5 hours. The first day, you see an Ayurvedic physician (or vaidya) and tell her (mine happens to be a woman) all about your aches and pains. My vaidya doesn’t ask for a medical history and I don’t have to sign a disclaimer or provide any written anything. Even though she speaks very good English, I “visibly demonstrate” my issues. I want to be clear about where I’m broken so I can be sure they will fix me right up!

Day 1:  I meet my masseuse (I’m not sure that’s what they’re called here), Dipti (meaning Light) and she takes me to a changing room where I … well, let me just say, there are no robes here ladies, so if you’re shy, you don’t want to do this! I follow her to the chamber (my term) that consists of a rather large, teak table.

I sit on a chair while my head gets massaged with hot oil, followed by my shoulders. Then, she points to the table, I climb up and lay down on my back to receive a massage with lots of hot oil: front, back, face, hands, feet, you name it. I will say that the table gets really slippery and is really hard!

The massage ends and I’m directed to a room for a steam. The steam “room” is actually one of those really old units where you sit on a stool and a piece of wood is inserted around your neck and the “door” is closed; your head is the only thing that’s showing. You remember these, I’m sure, from old movies, right? I’m completely soaked with oil and, well, actually, it reminds me of “cooking a goose.” (I told my friends at work later that I was oiled up and then sent to the broiler! They found this VERY funny!)

I am supposed to be in the steam “room” for 10 minutes, but honestly, when Dipti returns (probably less than five minutes has passed), I say, “I feel faint.” To which she replies, well, actually, she just looks perplexed. Clearly, we have a communication issue. So, I say, “Faint … you know, ahhhhhh” and I close my eyes and drop my head to one side. OK, a little dramatic, I’ll admit, but honestly, it is really hot in here. So, out I come and that ends my first day.

Day 2:  Today, I awake with a slight headache that thankfully goes away quickly, but during the night, I had a muscle spasm in my right thigh whenever I rolled over. I have a large bruise on my left thigh and my ribs are sore. I relay my ailments to Dipti, whereupon she presses on my thigh, presumably to make sure it still hurts.

There are two masseuses today and they are so in sync it feels like one person with many hands (like one of those goddesses you see everywhere over here). At the end of the hot oil massage, they do a synchronized kizhi treatment, consisting of small herbal pouches in cloth that they place on a heated plate and tamp on my body to release the healing herbs. They tell me that this will reduce the pain and swelling. And actually, the pain does go away once they stop the pounding. [OK, I’m just kidding here!]

I say to the doctor, “This is a process, right? So, by the end of the seven days, I’ll actually feel good, yes?”

I liken it to getting beaten up with small bags of sand and tell my work friends that yesterday I was oiled up and today I was tenderized with a hint of spice. The herbs smelled of, well, I’m not quite sure, perhaps Cardamom? Garam masala? I assumed I’d be ready for the broiler again, but they skipped that part. I’m hoping that gravy doesn’t make its way to Day 3 or I’ll be in real trouble.

Here’s a photo of the teak table and my healers.

Teak tables and my 'healers'

Teak tables and my ‘healers’

Day 3:  I am very sore today, with more bruises appearing, maybe because I bruise easily, maybe because I’m so pale you can see them! They do seem to be surprised by the bruises though. So I basically have the same treatment as yesterday, with one exception: when I am face down on the table, they put a pillow roll under my ankles. They clearly understood my whimpering yesterday about the pain in my knee caps as they pressed down on my legs, so I am really thankful for this.

Day 4:  I awake with a headache again today, but it goes away quickly. I REALLY don’t want to get up! I feel like I could sleep for another 12 hours! I am feeling really drained … probably because I go through these treatments and then go off to work a 12 hour day. Probably not the best way to do this! I tell Dipti that I need some energy today!!

What I get is another day of hot oil and kizhi, but I realize I am approaching this all wrong.

I decide I need to be one with the table. So, drawing on my brief Tai Chi experience (Judith would be proud … Calen will relate), I visually move the table to a forest (by the lake with five mountains). The table legs push their way through the moss into the soil, growing roots as they do so. Vines form on the legs and rise up to the top of the table. Flowers burst forth as I melt into the table top, drawing on the earth energy and becoming the table.  Outside noises disappear and all that can be heard is the song of the birds and the rustling of the wind through the trees.

When they begin pressing down on my arms as they lay across the edges of the table, I no longer feel the edges cutting into my skin … there are no edges, only the table, as we are one.

Today is a good day!

Day 5:  Hot oil and kizhi! The bruises are getting paler. My ribs are less painful. We may be getting somewhere.

Day 6:  As the kizhi treatments continue, I decide to follow the pain to its origins. During the hot oil massage, I reflect on the pain. I look internally to where it’s coming from. I’m afraid I’m not as good at this as I was at becoming one with the table. It seems to be less painful the more I focus though. Maybe I need more practice.

The kizhi seems to be hotter today. The pounding is the same, but the hot cloth feels like it’s on fire when it touches my skin. I decide to become the shaman who can walk over hot coals and not get burned. I envision myself lying on a bed of coals and not feeling the heat of it. It makes it bearable and in the end, there are neither blisters, nor red marks from the kizhi pouch.

Day 7:  The last of the treatments starts out the same. The kizhi is equally as hot today, so I encase my body in ice so that when the pouch touches my skin, it cools down immediately. I find myself smiling with the coolness of the touch.

The end of this day’s treatment is a therapy known as Sirodhara. This rejuvenating therapy is specifically designed to eliminate mental exhaustion and toxins. Thick threads are laid over my forehead just above the eye brows and wrapped behind my ears. Cotton is placed in my ears and wet pads across my eyes. Oil is then poured in a stream onto my forehead from a hanging golden urn some distance above me. The stream of oil sweeps slowly back and forth, like a pendulum swinging to the rhythm of some unknown universal music.

It is quite calming and I was given to understand that many people fall asleep during this therapy. I do not. I am whisked away to the outskirts of the universe where I see the planets moving in rhythm to the swinging pendulum. From here, I am pulled back to the top of what appears to be the Himalayas. The sky is crisp and clear and I can see the path before me. I have clarity of vision and feel like many pieces of a complicated puzzle are falling into place.

As I leave with my driver, Shaji, I am very calm and centered. And quite suddenly, as the colors and contrasts fly by, I realize I am looking through the chaos to the beauty beyond.

Namaste

Kodenad Elephant Kraal

When I was here last August, my UK colleague, Scott, told me about this place. He showed me some amazing photos of the elephants getting bathed in the river and recommended that I add it to my list for my return. So, when Marion, my US colleague who was here for several weeks, said, “What shall we do this weekend?” I immediately thought of this.

Along with several other teammates, we met at the Holiday Inn and in two cars, started off toward the sanctuary, which lies 45 km northeast of Cochin. The drive was quite beautiful as we passed through small towns alongside rivers with lovely mountain views in the distance. As is the case with travel in India, the traffic and road conditions meant that the approximately 28 miles took us about an hour and a half.

In days gone by, Kodenad was one of the largest elephant capturing and training centres in Southern India. In 1977 (not so long ago, really), the capture of elephants became illegal, but the elephant kraal and training centre still exists as a reserve and sanctuary for these remarkable animals.

The energy of the darkened wooden training ‘building’ was heavy with the echoes of the past. The thick wood and ghostly interior was rather frightening. But right next to it stood a couple of babies covered with thick, prickly hair that made them look like baby mammoths. Very cute they were!

The edge of the kraal

An edge of the training centre

Baby

Baby

Several of us were fortunate enough to take a ride on one of the six very large elephants set up with ‘saddles’ to carry passengers. One of our group saw the elephant being led away, presumably for lunch, and ran up to ask if we could have a ride. So back they came and three of us walked up the metal stairs and climbed on board. I tried to envision riding on one of these immense creatures for endless miles across India in days gone by. The heat, the shifting and exaggerated rocking, the slow, deliberate movements was not something I would have wanted to do for long distances, but the experience was tremendously exciting.

Ready to board

Ready to board

The elephant is the state animal of Kerala and they are used quite frequently, particularly in temple festivals. There’s actually a famous Elephant Palace, the only one in the world, near the Guruvayur temple in Punnathurkotta, that houses the temple’s 60+ elephants. There are also famous elephants, many made famous by the numbers of people they trample … go figure! I was told by my Indian banker that if you search for famous Indian elephants, you will find many reports of the famous and not so famous. So I did, and found this interesting site: Colors of India. They should probably reconsider their choice of color used in their text, but it does provide some interesting facts.

While I was staying in the hotel, I was fortunate enough to see a Temple Festival parade that included two very large, male Indian elephants robed in glittering gold with bells and lavish necklaces. People holding tinseled silk parasols and peacock feathered fans swayed back and forth as the elephants moved slowly forward to the beating of large drums. At one point, fireworks went off, but the elephants didn’t blink, clearly used to it (although I nearly fell out of the window).

So, back to the Kodenad. If you get up really early and get to the sanctuary in the morning, you can actually help bathe the elephants as they are taken to the river and brushed and washed by their handlers (called mahouts or pappan in Malayalam, the language of Kerala). We, of course, were lucky to make it by lunch. But we had a lovely time and, what can I say … I got to ride an elephant!!

Riding an elephant

Riding an elephant

The Taj Mahal

Our trip to Agra

The hotel arranged for a car to take us to Agra and a guide once we arrived. It was a really long trip (about four hours by car one way) over very rough roads in some places. We saw some interesting sites and our driver was very knowledgeable.

When we were leaving Gurgaon, our driver pointed out the wild pigs that live in the midst of the debris that seems to be everywhere in this part of India. Since Indians do not eat pork, they simply exist on their own, foraging for food. We also saw lots of cows … well, actually cows, oxen and water buffalo. We just called them all cows! They were everywhere, tied in the middle of the road, in fields, tied to trees on the side of the road, walking with people leading them or just wandering around on their own. We were on the national highway with four lanes – two in either direction. The center medium was filled with beautiful flowers and cows lying down or standing in the midst of them.

Cow

Cow

We also saw monkeys (waiting by the side of the road apparently for people to toss bananas to them), camels, goats and sheep. (Still no elephants … I was promised elephants!) We stopped so the driver could pay a toll as we entered another state and a man with two monkeys tried to get us to take photos so he could charge us afterwards. The female monkey jumped up on the car window on my side and she had a little baby clutched to her. A rope was tied around her neck and anchored to a large and clearly heavy chain. It was unbelievable sad.

The Taj Mahal – one of the Seven Wonders of the World

The Taj Mahal was as magnificent as you would imagine. Our tour guide, Bobby, was very knowledgeable and took lots of photos of Tracy and me. He told us the story of the building of the tomb, but it differed from the accounts I’ve read elsewhere. Here is what he said: ‘Shah Jahan fell in love with Mumtaz Mahal, a Muslim Persian princess, but was not able to get permission to marry her because his father (the current Mughal Emperor and son of Akbar the Great) wanted him to marry an Afghan princess (clearly for political reasons). He married his first wife, but after his father died, he became the Mughal Emperor and so was free to marry Mumtaz. Shah Jahan had dreams of a glorious palace and had been looking for sites to build it long before his beloved Mumtaz died. On her deathbed in 1631, Mumtaz told him she would soon be forgotten as he would be totally consumed with building his palace. And so it was that he was so overcome with grief that he decided his palace would be a tribute to her.’ So it wasn’t conceived out of love, but ended up being dedicated to love. Nice!

The Taj Mahal from a park bench

The Taj Mahal from a park bench

While we were there, a couple from India asked Tracy and me if they could have their photo taken with us “for memories.” We said sure and were later told by our guide that they were probably from a small village and they’ll show the photo to their friends to impress them that they met people who are so pale.

Following our Taj Mahal visit, our guide took us to a factory of sorts – similar to the co-op in Kerala – subsidized by the government. We saw the artists grinding and shaping the semi-precious stones to inlay in marble for tables, boxes and other objects. They explained that it’s the same process the Persian artists used when building the Taj Mahal. The art was being lost, which is why the government subsidizes it. The handmade items are beautifully crafted and some take months to complete.

We had a great lunch at a local establishment and Tracy had her first sweet (banana) Lassi.  It was a wonderful trip; one we’ll always remember!

Off to Gurgaon

Week 2 India: 31 July – 5 August 2012

Tracy (Jones) and I spent our first two weeks trying just about every Indian food item we could. Tracy has been ‘mostly’ vegetarian except when her parents were here. She’s also gotten me into the habit of using hand sanitizer at appropriate times and I’m learning to not touch my face at all. We’ve been very careful about what we’re eating – mainly from the standpoint of generally avoiding street food, eating in established hotel restaurants (except at work and in Agra) and sticking to items that are cooked so as not to inadvertently take in the tap water from vegetables that may have been rinsed in it. We are also only drinking (and brushing our teeth with) bottled water (interestingly enough, mostly Aquafina).

Last Tuesday night (31 July), after a day spent in a quality workshop, we had dinner at the Holiday Inn with a couple of colleagues, one from our office in Gurgaon. They were very impressed that we knew all the names of the India cuisine (and in particular, Avial, a specialty Kerala dish)!

On Wednesday afternoon (1 August) we flew to Delhi, where we checked into the Westin, Gurgaon Center. Since both Tracy and I are Starwood Platinum members, we got upgraded to amazing suites. Both were identical but on different floors. The suite had a large living area with a desk and a beverage area with an espresso machine – cool – and a small bathroom off the entry way. The room included an entertainment area with a DVD and other electronic toys. The fairly large bedroom had a king sized bed, but the bath area was amazing! There was a bathtub that was nearly as large as Val’s hot tub (only oval) to one side of the large room that also had a separate shower, toilet and double sinks. Honestly, the bathroom area was larger than the bedroom!

Gurgaon is quite near Delhi (the capital of India) just to the southwest, but it is sort of like a really large industrial complex. According to our driver, 10 years prior, the area was nothing but trees. There was a small village, but the drive between Delhi and Sohna was not safe with lots of bandits. Now that it’s been industrialized, the road is safe, or so the driver told us and we have no cause to doubt him. When we were coming into Gurgaon from the airport, it was dark and it looked like we could have been in Anywhere, USA, with lighted signs on new office buildings marking Sprint, Deloitte and other well known US companies.

By the way, the blackouts that took place in the north occurred just before we got there. It didn’t impact us while in Kerala except for several instances where the power went out momentarily. This also occurred several times while we were in Gurgaon, but not to the extent that it had. So clearly, as we all know, timing is everything!

Our meetings in Gurgaon got moved to Friday, so we decided to take Thursday and see the Taj Mahal. It will be an early day as it is a long drive to Agra!

 

Houseboat in Alleppey

Weekend with Tracy’s parents: 26 July – 30 July 2012

On Sunday, Bevin arranged for Tracy, her parents and I to go to Alleppey (a town about an hour and a half south of Kochi) known for its canals and houseboats. Bevin said it was sort of like Venice only less clean – funny because it really was nothing like Venice. We went there for a houseboat ‘ride’ on the lake (actually the bay adjacent to the Arabian Sea) and through some of the canals. We were on the houseboat for about 5 hours and ate a wonderful lunch that was cooked and served onboard. We were stopped alongside the canal at the time and there were some goats tied to trees by our landing site, including a really cute baby, whose mama kept a close eye on her from across a small path! The trip was really amazing and the houseboats are very unique.

Houseboat at Alleppey

Houseboat at Alleppey

Bevin said the people living on the canals are disconnected from the world as there are very few roads in and out of this area. It seems to truly be life on the water. We saw many people washing their clothes, transporting goods (mostly fruit – mangoes, bananas) and fishing.

River life

River life

We also saw a Snake Boat in training. These are long, narrow boats that seat 100 people, two abreast with some people standing in the middle and on the end to guide it. The 100 people are all rowing together and chanting to the beat of a drum. During the races, each boat has a specific drum rhythm and individualized chant. It was way cool! It reminded me somewhat of the Chinese Dragon Boats.

Snake boat in training

Snake boat in training

Snake boat in training

Snake boat

The day was pretty remarkable.

Tracy’s parents left on Monday evening after we had a wonderful dinner with them at Lagoon, a seafood restaurant in our hotel (Le Meridien, Kochi). It was great to meet them and they have invited me to come to Singapore whenever I feel a need to get away. They’ve also said to contact them if I need anything and they will mail it to me (because they are so much closer than Tracy!). They are great and I really enjoyed getting to know them!!

That’s it for now. I know I said I’d provide an update on the driving and you shall have it, I promise.