Ah India …

I wrote the piece below upon my return from India several months ago. I have been “readjusting” as I am now back in the US, and for some reason, have been putting off posting this. I believe it is because once posted, my adventure in India will not only FEEL over but BE over. And at this point, I can only say, until the next time …

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Dawn approaches with streaks of lightening. The rain comes down in waves as if the gods were dipping their buckets in a great cask of water and tossing out the contents on the world. It’s monsoon season in India; the air fresh and finally the heat subdued a bit. But wait … through my window, I see an airplane passing low, its landing gear at the ready, and clarity comes to my groggy early morning mind.

Ah, India … I’m gone from you now. This ache is real. I feel displaced as if a veil has been lowered muting the colors of my world.

View from my flat

View from my flat

I close my eyes. Fishermen are lined up in their small boats at the shore of the backwaters lowering their nets for the morning’s catch. Birds are calling hoping to snag a fish tossed back. Bolgatty Island is just visible through the mist, and on the other side, the Arabian Sea calls to the ships to take them to other exotic places. To the north, the Chinese Fishing Nets are lowered and raised again in hopes of a good morning.

Chinese fishing nets

Chinese fishing nets

Ah India … she calls to me, catching me off guard and I find myself drifting back, forgetting my current world in an attempt to hold on to the other.

Lake Erie is vast as I gaze out the window of the Cleveland office building. Sailboats dot the horizon, their sails billowing in the summer breeze.  The office is deathly quiet, as if I’m the only one working here.

I close my eyes. Sounds erupt; chatter, laughter, the noise of our teams working together.  The energy is palpable. I smile and the noise is replaced with a heaviness that is nearly tangible.

Ah India … the sights and sounds and colors. The uniqueness of it all will never leave me.

The colors of India

The colors of India

I smile at the memories … the cow with long blue horns riding in the back of the pick-up truck, the flashes of beautiful silk sarees adorning the lovely women as they walk quickly across the streets between the cars, autos, motorcycles, goats and other pedestrians. The trucks and buses of all colors imaginable.

Colorful truck

Colorful truck

Tea and spice shop

Tea and spice shop

Ah India … the cord that connects our worlds is strong but you are so very far away. A part of me was left behind while the part of me that remains has been forever altered.

I close my eyes. I see your beautiful faces, your eyes bright, your smiles engaging, your friendship and passion real. In the midst of tears, I laugh … my heart is full … my desire to see you presses upon me.

GaGa over LuLu

No, not the Lady! As a matter of fact, no celebrity was necessary to bring out the crowds for the grand opening of the LuLu Mall in Cochin, Kerala. Touted as the largest mall in Asia, LuLu opened on 10 March.

On a Sunday afternoon, in a wild and crazy moment, Aswathi, Megha and I decided to go see what it was like. Hey … we did wait a week! But, clearly, we needed to wait a LOT longer!

LuLu has shops on five floors with a total size of 3,900,000 square feet. It has a cinema complex, a 5,000 sq ft ice skating rink, a food court that includes a dozen a half ‘kitchens’ plus three fine dining establishments and parking for 4,800 cars. All of the parking spaces were taken when we got there!! Ha, ha … no wait, I’m not kidding!

It took us about five hours to get in and get out. We were probably in the mall a total of 45 minutes. Most of our time was spent sitting in the car waiting for the traffic to move so we could just get to the corner to make the turn. Aswathi pointed out that many of the cars had license plates that identified them as coming from outside of Kochi.

The entire experience was really just too funny! We kept saying things like, “Aswathi, we’ll just get out here and walk the rest of the way. When we come out, we’ll easily find you because you’ll still be right here.”

When we finally made the turn at the corner, we ended up in another long line which led to the parking garage. We got behind a car that had a sticker on it identifying it as a new purchase. There was a little rise in the road as we entered the LuLu complex and the (presumably) new driver kept stalling the car to the point where three security guards rushed up and began pushing on the back of the car so it wouldn’t roll backwards into ours. We would have moved out of the way, except there was nowhere to move to!

LuLu Celebrate

LuLu Celebrate

About an hour later, we finally pulled into the parking garage, wondering why we were still doing this, but really, where else were we going to go at that point. Once you’re in a queue like that, there’s just no chance of getting out of it, so you just go with the flow!

So the big to-do at LuLu is their hypermarket, which is a huge grocery on two floors. But we plowed our way through the crowds in the opposite direction, as it was at capacity when we came up the escalator and found ourselves deposited directly in front of it. The five of us (Aswathi’s daughter and her mother were also with us) grabbed hands and wove our way through the crowds. I led the way and felt like a salmon desperately trying to swim upstream.

At this point, I can’t really tell you what the hypermarket has, but I can tell you that all of the grapes vanished on opening day and none of them were actually sold! It seems that everyone was taking a taste … but they were just taking one grape … what would that hurt? Well, apparently there were so many people taking ‘just one’ that all of the grapes disappeared pretty quickly.

I doubt much got sold on the opening weekend, except perhaps in the hypermarket. The weekend we were there, although it was very crowded, the shops were fairly empty. People were just looking around; doing some window shopping and taking lots of photos. And in the midst of the chaos and charm of the largest mall in Asia, we saw a number of young lads (early 20s perhaps) wearing sunglasses and ‘striking a pose’ in front of signs like Marks & Spencer. Seriously! And this particular shop wasn’t even open yet!

Crowds inside

! Crowds inside

We did stop on the top floor at the ‘food court’ to have a quick coffee, but they were pretty nearly out of everything and all Aswathi and Megha managed to bring back to the table we were desperately trying to hang on to, were two diet cokes, a juice drink and a Sprite.

Glass ceiling

Glass ceiling

When we left it was about 8:30 p.m. and traffic was still pouring – well, really, creeping (very, very slowly) – into the lanes for the parking garage. I said, “Well, that was fun!” to which Megha replied, “I’ll come back in about six months.”

Outside - a changing wall display

Outside – a changing wall display

Our Kochi (Cochin) tour

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

We had a great weekend with Tracy’s parents, who arrived on Thursday night (26 July) from Singapore. Bevin arranged for a couple of wonderful outings, including dinner on Friday night at a Kerala restaurant in Dream (a boutique hotel) and a site-seeing tour throughout Kochi on Saturday.

Kochi’s colonial name is Cochin and I haven’t quite figured out when to use which, since it seems to be used interchangeably. When I asked Bevin, he told me that the Indian name is Kochi and the English name is Cochin, so I keep thinking it’s kind of like Mumbai and Bombay.

Cochin is situated on the southwest coast of the Indian peninsula and is the commercial and industrial capital of the state of Kerala, hailed as ‘God’s Own Country.

According to http://www.cochin.org/ “This lovely seaside city is flanked by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. Its proximity to the equator, the sea and the mountains provide a rich experience of a moderate equatorial climate.”

It goes on to speak of the “unfathomable diversity and beauty of Kerala, rated in the top three tourist destinations by the World Travel & Tourism Council and featured in National Geographic Traveler’s ’50 greatest places of a lifetime’.”

On our tour of Cochin, we saw the Chinese fishing nets, a seafood market on the water, Jew Town, the Dutch Palace (a museum), St. Francis church in Fort Kochi (the oldest church built by Europeans in India and where Vasco da Gama, who died in Kochi, was originally buried before his remains were taken back to Portugal much later) and Santa Cruz Basilica (originally built by the Portuguese in 1505, destroyed by the British in 1795 and rebuilt in 1905).

Fishing nets

Chinese fishing nets

We had a lovely lunch at the Old Harbour Hotel, in the heart of ancient Fort Kochi. A 300 year-old building that was the first hotel of old Cochin and reopened as a boutique hotel. The food is all organic and was excellent.

We’ve had the same driver, Majesh, during our stay in Kochi, which has made things very nice for us as he knows the city very well and he seems to be looking out for us. As part of our tour, and I’m assuming to help support the Kerala economy and the artisans within the city, Majesh took us to a shop that housed 14 families of craftsmen making Kerala-specific products from cashmere shawls to jewelry, clothing and wood products. The cooperative of sorts is subsidized by the government in an effort to support artists. So, we did our bit for the Kerala economy and picked up a few items.

We decided to return to Dream on Saturday night after touring Kochi for the day to have dinner at Mainland China. Touted as authentic Chinese cuisine, the restaurant was lovely and I quite enjoyed the change (although Tracy and her parents – her father is Cantonese – said it wasn’t really authentic).

Tomorrow we’re off to Alleppey and a houseboat ‘cruise.’

The initial trip: Arrival in India

Week 1: 21 – 26 July, 2012

I arrived in Trivandrum, capital of the beautiful state of Kerala at the southern-most tip of India. I flew Singapore Airlines from Newark to Singapore (thanks to the insight of my good friend, Calen Rayne, who informed me that this is the longest nonstop commercial flight in the world — nearly 19 hours in the air)! I met up with Tracy Jones (my colleague) at the Singapore airport (a really cool airport, BTW!) and we flew into Chennai (Madras) and then on to Trivandrum. I left Newark at 11pm on Saturday night (21 July) and arrived at my destination at 3pm on Monday afternoon. It was a long day!!

We had an amazing dinner last night (24 July) at a resort on the ocean called surya samudra (Sun Beach) http://www.suryasamudra.com/. It was rather magical.

ImageThe rain has held off and the temperature has been hot but with pleasant breezes, so it’s been very comfortable. Thanks to climate change, they are experiencing a 22% decrease in rainfall so far during monsoon, so to them, a drought. We ate outside (no pesky mosquitoes – thank heavens) with the sound of the surf and really fabulous spicy Kerala food (Indian with coconut – similar to Thai but much spicier – cardamom, etc.). It’s high tide “season” because of the monsoons with lots of really rambunctious waves, so the sound reminded me of Ross Marino’s ocean sounds on steroids! We had dinner with the Trivandrum office manager and a partner in Pursuits from Switzerland (originally from Chicago). She was very entertaining!

We’re heading to Kochi tomorrow (further North), where I will be living when I am seconded. Tracy’s parents are coming for the weekend from Singapore, so that will be really fun! She tells me they are foodies and that her mother has her own personal jeweler, so I’m sure we’ll get along great.

Everyone here has been very friendly and they all seem to be really happy. (They smile a lot.) We’re working with Bevin, our relationship manager, who has been taking very good care of us. I asked Bevin if the people are REALLY happy or is it just for our benefit. He said, no, they are really happy because they can live with their families in Kerala (God’s own country) and work in Trivandrum for a great firm! OK, then!

I’m going to bed now. Just got back from dinner and it’s been a long day, so I’ll catch up with you later and fill you in on the crazy driving!