Five things I didn’t know before I went to India

dsc03097On December 20, five days after Steve and I returned from our nine-week Asian adventure, the New York Times published an article by its Frugal Traveler entitled “9 Things You Should Know Before You Go to India.” A friend forwarded it to me with the question, “Did all these make your list too?” Now that I’ve dug my way down to that level of my in-box, I have to say: sure. The items in the article were practical tips having to do with credit cards, visas, phone service, street food, and the like. But I’ve also been reflecting on some bigger things that caught us unawares. Five stand out.

img_1487The Pollution — I knew the air in India might be bad, but I was unprepared for the depths of its wretchedness. In the course of our trip, I discovered that the weather app on my iPhone includes an “air quality index.” Since we’ve gotten back, I’ve been checking it and have learned that San Diego’s air typically falls in the 20-50 range (“Good”), occasionally dipping up to moderate pollution levels. When we arrived in Bengal, however, the index number was about 150 (“Unhealthy for sensitive groups”), and it got worse city by city after that, through “Unhealthy” then “Very Unhealthy” then “Hazardous” (in the 300-500 range). By the time we hit Jaipur in Rajasthan, it was over 500, literally off the chart. (“Don’t Even Think about What This is Doing to Your Lungs!!!”) I started coughing maybe a week after our arrival October 15 and still haven’t totally stopped (though I feel 99% better).img_02146-6Beyond the physical ill effects, the environmental despoliation was depressing. The air was foul not just here and there but every single place throughout the north and at least down to Mumbai (Bombay). Kerala in the far south was slightly better, though hardly pristine. Seen through clean air, much of the Indian landscape would be beautiful. Its absence is heartbreaking.

Could I have done anything differently? Maybe. October and November have a reputation for being the worst months for Indian air pollution. Summer is supposed to be somewhat better. But the heat and humidity then are legendarily staggering.

A simpler solution might be to pack air-filtering masks. I actually considered this but rejected it on the grounds they would take up too much space, and the locals might think we were bizarre. If I were doing it again, I wouldn’t hesitate to take masks.

Not quite as awful as the air was the noise pollution in the streets, caused by every vehicle honking at every other one, incessantly. It frayed our nerves far more than I anticipated (but it probably didn’t do as much permanent damage to our bodies). Here’s a small sample, which sounds way less noisy than many of our rides.

Crime and other street hassles — We never felt menaced by street criminals, a nice discovery. We never felt unsafe, and we walked a lot, even at night in poor neighborhoods. I know some single women travelers have had grim experiences in India, and maybe we just got lucky. Still, no locals ever warned us not to venture into certain areas, as was common last spring when we traveled in Brazil. If there are muggings in India, we sensed they are rare. That’s liberating, and we appreciated it daily.

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We loved being able to stroll down byways like this one in Kolkata, where so much life unfolds.

We also never were overwhelmed by beggars. They exist, of course, some with hideous deformities. But we never felt besieged by them. More ubiquitous, and often irritating, were the hustlers and street hawkers. To the latter I could smile and say “No thanks,” or “Maybe later!” But the friendly young fellows who called out, “Where are you from?” presented us with more of a dilemma (usually several times daily). To ignore them felt rude but to answer always entangled us in arguments about why we didn’t want to buy whatever they were selling.

The Indian trains were not romantic — I had hoped they would be. Just a little. I think they once were, the traces of imperial glory lingering even when Paul Theroux wrote The Great Railway Bazaar 45 years ago.

We chose to primarily get around on trains hoping for a glimpse of that past and also figuring it would be safer to ride the rails than brave the insanity on the streets and highways or fly on regional airlines. According to global rail guru Mark Smith (aka The Man in Seat 61), the Indian passenger rail network is the biggest on earth in terms of passenger kilometers, as well as the world’s largest employer (with a staff of 1.5 million). Smith states unequivocally that the best way to see Indian is on its trains. So I followed his advice.IMG_3930.jpeg

The results were mixed. I had a devil of a time obtaining an online account with the Indian rail system. I tried for weeks, following the instructions on their website, sending emails when the instructions didn’t work, trying to call someone, starting all over again. Only when I used a VPN on my desktop computer — connected to an Indian server that made it appear I was located in India — did the system finally let me register.

With an account, it was relatively easy to book tickets in advance, and that was great, since the train stations tend to be overcrowded and chaotic. On several occasions I was able to cancel or rebook tickets once we were on the road. We started doing this after it dawned on us that trains departing early in the morning and originating at or near the departure station had a greater chance of running on time.

We only booked passage in air-conditioned cars, so we always had reserved seats.  Sometimes our compartments were filled with more fellow passengers; sometimes fewer (depending on the class of ticket available). None of our trains came close to being luxurious, but they weren’t squalid. The best thing about them was the opportunity they provided to chat with Indian travelers. We had some entertaining and educational conversations, and when the talk wasn’t flowing, we drank in great views of the countryside.

The worst thing about our rail travel was its unpredictability. A few trains departed and arrived on time, with one or two even getting us in ahead of schedule. But several (like the “toy train” to Darjeeling or the train that was supposed to go from Kolkata to Gaya but instead went to Patna were nightmares. Sometimes the cars just stopped, inexplicably, and we waited to get moving again, sometimes for hours.

One other less than pleasant surprise was that the design of most stations requires passengers to climb up (and down) really high staircases to get up to walkways that let you cross from one track to another. Usually there are no escalators. We eventually figured out that many (most?) of the Indians hire porters to haul their suitcases over this obstacle course. Steve and I bristled at this, and not because of the (trivial) cost. “Why don’t we use the porters?” I wondered aloud one day. “Because it’s un-American!” he snapped. I knew what he meant.dsc02393

In the end, we concluded that for trips longer than 5-6 hours, it would have been better to take regional planes (the few we flew on appeared to be well run). But for shorter trips, we would still choose the trains instead of hiring private cars and drivers, not only because the latter is so much more expensive. It felt like our chances of dying in transit, while not negligible, were lower on the trains than on the road. Moreover, even the fanciest private vehicles can’t avoid awful traffic and potholes, which in the end are more common and nerve-wracking than being stopped on a railroad siding.

Food was so inexpensive — We weren’t brave enough to eat the street food. But we also had no intestinal problems and could count on one hand the number of mediocre meals we consumed over the course of 9 weeks eating in various hotels and restaurants. Including our three days in South Korea and 10 days in Sri Lanka, for the most part we spent less than $15 per day per person for tasty food, drinks, and all snacks. We splurged on a dozen occasions, paying $45 or more for the two of us, but what we got for those meals was amazing. I’ll never forget the Bengali banquet that included about 75 different dishes plus drinks and cost about $100 for two.

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Just  few of those dishes
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We learned that Bengali desserts can be amazing

 

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Even very simple meals were usually delicious.

Hindus aren’t pacifists — I suppose I knew this before we went to India. But I had no clue how deep and vicious the antipathy runs between some of India’s Hindu majority members and its Muslim citizens, an ancient tension that is currently being stoked by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his cronies in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the even more hate-filled Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).  We got many earfuls of this antipathy, talking to people. The Hindu extremists don’t just target their Islamic fellow countrymen. In Agra we heard about one young couple who had been murdered on their wedding day (the week before) by Hindus angered by the fact that the (Hindu) bride was marrying a Christian.

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We know there are many nice Hindus, like this fellow. But we were less aware of the rough edges before our travels in India.

 

What Sri Lanka was like

A monumental rock formation rises almost straight up from the heart of Sri Lanka. It’s known as Lion Rock — Sigiriya. Archeologists think humans have been living on and around it for more than 10,000 years, and many believe that in the late 400s (AD), a king named Kasyapa built a garden and palace at the summit after overthrowing and murdering his father. No buildings remain, but the ruins and fortifications are mind-boggling, considering the height and verticality of the site.One small area on top of the formation. How DID the workers get all those bricks up the sheer walls?

Steve and I climbed Sigiriya toward the end of our stay in Sri Lanka, and we spent some time gazing out at the views in every direction. “What strikes me,” Steve commented, “is that the guy who built this had to have been one of the greatest assholes in history.”

I knew he wasn’t thinking of the patricide, but rather the staggering expense and unimaginable suffering it must have cost — all to satisfy this one paranoiac’s miserable thirst for glory and security. We stood there, despising Kasyapa for a moment. Then we went back to enjoying our time up so high.

Visiting Sigiriya was one of the best things we did in Sri Lanka (the island south of India formerly known as Ceylon). The climb up to the top — around 1200 steps — wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. All those stairs were fenced so well the ascent never felt too frightening.We entered the grounds shortly after 7:30 am, when the day was still cool, and the hordes of Chinese tourists had not yet arrived. About halfway up, we shook our heads in wonder at the frescoes painted in one long gallery in the sheer rock face. A parade of women with Barbie bodies — tiny waists and beautiful naked breasts — decorate the wall. (Scholars suppose them to be either heavenly nymphs or a depiction of Kasyapa’s concubines.) A little further on, we passed graffiti dating back to the 6th to 14th centuries. Awestruck visitors scratched the comments, mostly noting how hot the ladies were.Guards stopped us from taking any pictures of the frescoes, but the lion’s paws carved into a plateau near the top are a popular photo op.

Although climbing Sigiriya ranked among our favorite activities in Sri Lanka, it was one of several. I’ve already written about our time in Colombo and Galle Fort and the idyllic southern coast.One of the views from Galle Fort.

After our one-night stay on the beach, we traveled north and stopped along the way at one of the country’s national parks where, to our amazement, we had one of the best game drives of our lives. We counted more than 25 elephants during the two hours our Jeep bounced over the park’s dirt paths. Not just elephants, but crocodiles, wild buffalo and boar, monitor lizards, monkeys, snakes, other mammals, and a host of birds live in the park.Next we traveled to the cool, misty highlands; spent a morning hiking and loving the green-drenched vistas at every turn.Old trains that run over single tracks built by the British colonialists in the early 1800s are a part of the tea-country landscape.

We took a train from Ella through the emerald tea plantations……where Steve proved remarkably adept at picking tea leaves…

and we wound up in the city of Kandy. At a temple complex there, Buddhists revere a fragment of one of the Buddha’s teeth.It’s never shown to the public, but the ardor of the pilgrims is evident.

The final phase of our Sri Lankan journey took us to remnants of the ancient world, not just Sigiriya but also… …the Royal Rock Temple complex in Dambulla, filled with about 150 statues of the Buddha that followers began creating about 2000 years ago.Painted designs and images make it look like the cave ceilings are covered with exquisite Oriental rugs.

The vast spiritual complex at Anuradhapura was founded in the 4th century BC and contains three of the biggest monuments ever built in the ancient world, inferior only to the pyramids at Giza.This one was made from more than 90 million bricks and stood at the center of a monastery complex that once housed 3000 monks.

And nearby grows one of the oldest and most venerated trees in the world — a bodhi tree believed to have been grown from a cutting of the original one in Bodhgaya, India under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

We had some bad moments. A couple of dismal hotels depressed us. We inched and lurched through too many hours of awful traffic. We had a heartbreaking experience with the first of two driver/guides we hired. But I had to fight back tears when we said goodbye to the second of the two; our time together was so richly meaningful.

Besides sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of Sri Lanka with us, Omar also took us to the house where he was born and some of his extended family lives today. We stopped at his own home too; chatted with his wife and sister-in-law, met a son and daughter, admired his two-year-old grandson.For most of his life, Omar’s been a driver — of cars and trucks and tuk-tuks — but he also has worked for a number of NGOs, including a journalism team that did some fine reporting toward the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Belying his sweet, even humble, demeanor, he seemed resourceful and astute to us. He didn’t hide his voracious appetite for breaking news. We talked a lot about the political uproar that’s been roiling Sri Lanka since late October, when the current president shocked everyone by firing the prime minister and replacing him with the strong man who ended the war (in 2009) but at the cost of abysmal human-rights abuses.

Since the war, Sri Lanka has become a superstar travel destination, but this turn of events was scary. It raised the specter of instability and even violence breaking out again. While Steve and I were tromping around India, tourist bookings all over Sri Lanka were evaporating. The Sri Lankan rupee fell even further than it did earlier in the year — good for us but bad for the Sri Lankans. We sensed gloom, even a touch of desperation, in the almost-empty hotels and restaurants.We saw this demonstration near the Parliament building in Colombo. Omar sounded optimistic; he said he thought the fracas would turn out to be just a rat’s nest of political scheming and ego, rather than a tinder pile that could explode into a conflict in which a lot of people would die. He knows a lot more about Sri Lanka than me; I hope he’s right. The country is packed with more beautiful and interesting areas than other places many times its size. But when thuggish narcissists play games, they can cause a lot of pain for the common folk.Newspapers still appear to be thriving, and people were scanning them anxiously.

Team fish

Stilt fishermen — guys perched high on poles in the ocean to get a better view of their prey — are one of the most iconic images associated with Sri Lanka. The men look striking, but the only problem is no one actually fishes that way any more. The island’s remaining “stilt fishermen”only scramble up the poles for tourists, then browbeat them into paying for any images they take. “The stilt fishermen nowadays are actors,” one Sri Lankan told us.

But men on Sri Lanka’s southern coastline do continue to fish in an ancient way that’s photogenic. Steve and I stumbled upon them on our walk shortly after dawn yesterday morning. The beach in front of our resort stretched farther than we could see and looked empty….…but we spotted a few fishing boats on the water……and then some guys in the distance, pulling a rope.The channel was too deep for us to wade across, but we found more men pulling hard on another line when we walked back in the direction of our hotel.The work looked strenuous, but sociable.Nothing happened suddenly, but eventually the net attached to the rope emerged from the water.The men were careful in its management.Eventurally the distant boat that had been somehow positioning the net approached the shore.It’s occupants first rowed, then lugged it onto the beach…Then they began to pull on another line that had been staked to a pole in the sand.As the net drew closer and the surf increased, the work could be rough.But the two wings of the team edged ever closer to each other.In the final stages, a host of birds swirled ahead. I felt nervous. What if, after all this work, the net was empty?No worries. As the haul emerged, there was bounty in the strands.The air was filled with the frantic flipping of dying fish.One of the fishermen told us it wasn’t a fantastic catch, but much better than it had been for the past few days. This guy asked if we wanted to go on an evening tour of the lagoon, but we had to decline. We had other fish to fry (metaphorically). I’m posting this now from the misty highland tea country. It’s a little hard to believe we’re in the same country.

A turtle twist

In this, the final phase of our long South Asian adventure, Steve and I are trying to cram a comprehensive look at Sri Lanka into 11 days. The island is only about the size of Ireland. But it has several distinct aspects that made us to want to cover a lot of ground. Tuesday, our one full day in the capital (Colombo), we walked around enough to feel satisfied. Wednesday we took a train south down the coast to the ancient trading port and current World Heritage Site of Galle. We stayed exclusively within the walls of its 500-year-old fort, a compact area now filled with trendy guesthouses and chic shops and good restaurants. We enjoyed the strolling and the eating — but there’s not much more I can say about it that’s interesting.

Next we wanted to briefly experience Sri Lanka’s legendary tropical beaches, so we hired a driver to take us about 45 miles east along the island’s southern coast. Tonight we’re staying in an unpretentious little resort at the end of a dirt road, deep within a grove of coconut palms. Its crystalline infinity pool overlooks the sand and crashing waves of the Indian Ocean; we swam a bit this afternoon before a downpour drove us inside. We plan to walk along the beach tomorrow morning before checking out and moving on. The beach is beautiful, and we’re thrilled to experience it. But again, what more can I say?

Our single offbeat experience occurred about an hour outside Galle on the way here, when our driver unexpectedly pulled off the road. He asked if we wanted to visit a turtle sanctuary and breeding center that was working to help save the world’s sea turtles. How could we resist? We each paid the $2.80 admission fee plus I popped for an extra $5.80, which the guy in the admissions booth said would allow me to transport a newborn turtle to the surf.

Inside, a friendly local man who volunteers at the center led us around the premises. He explained that when local fishermen find an injured turtle, they bring it to the center and receive a little more money than the animal might fetch in a local seafood market. A veterinarian helps treat whatever can be treated. One animal, for example, had swallowed a plastic bag that made it sick enough that it had lost its shell. But the shell had regrown, and in a few months, the turtle would be returned to the sea, the guide explained.

He reached into one of the watery pens, pulled out a young green turtle, and let Steve and me and two young Australians hold it.The volunteer guide introduced us to three of the other four sea turtle species that come to this part of the world to breed.We inspected the hatchery, where the center staff buries turtle eggs that have been dug up by locals and brought to them for protection against predators such as dogs and mongooses.I felt thrilled to see these amazing animals up so close. Finally the guide placed a newborn, hatched that very morning, into my palm. Black in color, and vigorously paddling the air, it felt strong enough to escape from my hand.So Steve and I hastened down to the surf. I placed him on the sand and we both held our breath, watching wave after wave come close but fall just short of reaching him. Then the incoming seawater swirled close enough, and the newborn paddled frantically.A minute later, he was out of sight.

We felt exhilarated. What a brilliant free-market approach to saving this species! Pay local folks who might otherwise destroy them to bring them to a refuge dedicated to getting them back into the sea. We gave the guide a good tip, gladdened by the thought that our visit was making the world a little safer for sea turtles.

Back in the car, driving south again, I checked my Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guide for more turtle information. Sure enough, on page 99, I found a sidebar on “Hatching Turtles” which described the operation we had just seen and others on the coast around Bentota and Kosgoda. “But the reality is that the turtle hatcheries might be doing more harm than good,” the book went on. Putting the newborns in a tank “for even a very short time” deprives them of some of their eggs’ yolk that can give them for energy for their first hours in the sea. Moreover, female sea turtles like to return to the exact spot where they hatched to lay their own eggs. If they’re born in captivity, they won’t get a ‘magnetic memory’ of their beach of birth and thus are thought by some turtle experts to be unable to return to shore to propagate their species.

I felt deflated. The rescue/hatchery concept seemed to make so much sense. The turtles were so cute! It was irresistible to see and hold them. And here Lonely Planet was telling me Steve and I might have actually made the world a worse place for sea turtles by patronizing the place? That I might have condemned that valiant little baby to an unnecessary death?

It’s complicated being a well-intentioned tourist in the 21st Century. There are so many ways to get things wrong. It’s enough to make you want to go to an isolated beach and lie down on the warm sand and just not think — or write — about anything.

Culture shocked

Landing Monday afternoon at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I got the biggest dose of culture shock I have ever experienced. Emerging from the jetway into the terminal, my ears were filled with…. Christmas music! And there were plenty of Christmas decorations too.Like this.And this.

I’ve spent my adult life living in San Diego, where carolers dress in shorts and t-shirts, and folks string colored lights from their palm trees. So I’m used to celebrating the holiday in balmy weather. What was so strange Monday was suddenly being plunged into the Christmas Season after seeing not one hint of the approaching holiday anywhere in India (unless you count the Black Friday emails in my in-box.) This even though 19% of the population of Kerala (in India) is Christian. We stayed just a few blocks from the Cochin Fort’s Catholic basilica but saw not one wreath nor Christmas bulb there.

Sri Lanka has half the percentage of Christians Kerala has. Yet here we were, waiting for our suitcases while listening to The First Noel and Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem! This wasn’t just some show of airport internationalism. Once in the city, more signs of the holiday abounded:

When I expressed my surprise to one of the staffers at our Colombo hotel, he beamed and declared that Sri Lanka’s residents love to celebrate everyone’s holidays. Christians and Muslims put up Hindu garlands routinely, he said.

That was nice to hear. The savage 25-year-long war that ripped this country apart and killed 100,000 people had strong religious elements (Buddhist v. Hindu). It ended less than 10 years ago, with real reconciliation only dating back about three years. And even though Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) has been booming since then, political turmoil broke out just recently. In the past three days, we’ve seen a few signs of what’s playing out: demonstrators assembled Tuesday near the Parliament building in Colombo; some front-page headlines.

What we’ve seen more of, however, is orderly streets and serene landscapes. I’m already kind of used to the holiday decorations.But after India, I suspect we’ll continue to feel shocked by the peace and quiet right up to the minute we depart for home, eight days from now.I’m posting this from Galle, about two hours south of Colombo. We’re staying just a few blocks from this seascape. Clean water, clean air, uncrowded — that’s shocking!

The 2 blind San Diegans and the elephant

Throughout the seven weeks we traveled in India, I thought more than once about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It recounts what happened when a group of blind men investigated the strange new creature they had heard about. Each man touched a different part of the beast, and each formed a clear idea of what it must look like. The guy who felt the trunk said the elephant was like a snake. The one who touched its side said that was nonsense; elephants instead resembled walls. The man who stroked its ear concluded they’re like fans, and so on. Each was so convinced the others were wrong they eventually came to blows.

Before we left San Diego, I knew India was big and complicated. But our hands-on experiences were humbling. I blogged about our hellish midnight arrival in Kolkata where the line for prepaid taxis moved so slowly it took us more than an hour to reach the head of it. I could have (blindly) concluded we should never take another Indian prepaid taxi. But we did — at least a half-dozen times over the weeks that followed, including another time in Kolkata. On all those subsequent occasions, the service was fast and safe and cheap.

After a month of traveling in India, I wrote about how we had not once found anything resembling a modern grocery store. But then we went south, and in Kerala we found plenty of them.

Our final destination, the state of Kerala hugs the far southwestern coast of the subcontinent. Traveling to Kerala from Kodagu (the relatively isolated mountain district where we had our elephantine adventures) wasn’t simple. Interminable buses make the trip, but no trains. In order to fly, we would have had to drive east for at least four hours back to Bangalore and then fly west again. Finally, the simplest solution was to hire a car and driver. The ride would cost $157 and take about 10 hours, we were warned. Frankly, I didn’t believe it. How could it take 10 hours to go less than 220 miles?

We learned. Potholed two-lane roads in the mountains made the going slow at first. The flow would improve for a stretch, and our hopes would rise. Maybe the worst was over? But as we approached the coastal road south, we moved even more slowly. Traffic wasn’t as bad as what we saw in so much of the north, but the streets were narrow, and the constant flow of buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, bicyclists, animals, and pedestrians through them forced our driver to jam on the brakes almost constantly or at best creep along. I hunkered down in a back seat, trying to lose myself in blogging, but the twisty roads drove Steve up to the front seat. There all he could do was observe hour upon hour of our slog forward. In the end, it didn’t take 10 hours to reach Cochin. It took almost 11.

We stumbled out of the taxi, cranky and fed up with India. It felt irredeemable — until the next morning, when Peter Panathara took us on his “silent tour” of the local backwaters. Much of the coast of Kerala is broken up into a complex network of waterways. One of the big tourist activities here is to cruise them. Some folks rent houseboats and spend one or more nights sleeping on them, but day trips also are popular. I only read about Peter’s tour a few days before we headed for Cochin. He had an opening, a stroke of immense good luck for us, because he turned out to be one of the best guides imaginable.

In the 7 hours we spent together, we learned that before starting his tour business, Peter had worked for more than 20 years as an investigative reporter for one of Cochin’s daily newspapers, primarily covering crime and corruption. His knowledge of the region felt encyclopedic; his pride in Kerala palpable. The state towers over the rest of India in countless way, including average lifespan (at least 10 years longer); literacy and access to modern plumbing (100%), population growth (declining, rather than continuing to skyrocket), religious tolerance, and environmental consciousness. Cochin’s spiffy new airport is powered by a huge field of solar panels, the first we saw anywhere on the subcontinent. The state has already largely recovered from the devastating monsoon flooding and landslides that struck in August, the worst in a century, with a valor and vigor that would make a great action film.

Once we reached our embarkation point (about an hour outside the city), the experience grew even more magical.One bad thing about Kerala is its heat and humidity, but in Peter’s big canoe, propelled by a local villager armed with a long pole, a light breeze cooled us. Crossing a broad channel, we sheltered under a big umbrella……then slipped under a low gate……into a series of narrow canals shaded by coconut palms, mahogany, and other huge tropical trees.For a long time, Peter stopped talking, and we glided through the passages hearing only the birdsong and the swish of the water moving over the hull.

We stopped a few times, first to gather coconuts from one of the trees……drink their water…and taste their custardy insides.We continued on to a tiny island and met the man who first settled it and now lives there with his relatives and a few other families.We ate a delicious lunch prepared by two of the women in the family……and learned how to spin twine out of coconut fiber.That’s Peter. By the time we got back to our hotel, he felt like an old friend.

For me, it was probably the best single day of the whole 7 weeks. The next day, our last in India, couldn’t top it, but we still had a pleasant time strolling past the fishermen working just a few blocks from our hotelThe heart of old Cochin is 500 years old, and you can sense that.

That night, we had the strangest theatrical experience of our lives. One of Kerala’s traditional art forms is kathakali, in which actors and musicians present dramatizations of passages from the great Hindu holy books. In their classical form, these performances can last from 6 to 10 hours. However, visitors sample a vastly shortened form. It starts with watching the actors apply their makeup.Here’s what the stage looked like when we walked in.The make-up application had just begun.It continued over the course of the next hour.Then we listened to a short lecture about the performance elements. Actors don’t speak but rather communicate meaning with highly stylized hand signs, facial expressions (like this one. I think it was revulsion)…and eye movements. Kathalkali actors must train their eyeballs like athletes. I’ve never seen such amazing control over that body organ.

After the lecture, we watched a 30-minute excerpt.

When we emerged onto the street, Steve said, “We’ll, I’m certainly glad I came with you. If you told me about it, I would have thought you took some really heavy drugs.” We agreed it made kabuki theater seem as banal as a network sitcom. I cannot explain it any further than that, except to suggest it felt like we had touched yet another very weird part of the elephant.

Elephants and leeches

We didn’t go to Kodagu looking for elephants. We got interested in the area when a friend who has worked and traveled for pleasure in India told us Kodagu was a spice capital of south India, dense with gorgeous jungle. Then another friend put us in touch with an Indian friend who lives in Bangalore and owns two coffee plantations in Kodagu (also known as Coorg, the old British name). I emailed Sheila, asking if we might meet for a lunch, and in an amazing display of generosity, she invited us to stay in the guesthouse on one of her plantations. We made plans to spend three nights.

I haven’t written anything about our time in Bangalore and Mysore because we only had two nights in each. Both look more prosperous than any place we visited in the north, but sadly the air and traffic in Bangalore (“the Silicon Valley of India”) still wasn’t great. By far the highlight for us there was our rollicking three-plus-hour lunch with Sheila — a commanding, cosmopolitan lady with a surfeit of interesting opinions and insights and abundant good humor.

She had worried we might get bored with two and a half days in Kodagu, but this did not come to pass. I don’t know why the district isn’t on every Indian visitor’s list. For centuries (millennia?), Kodagu was an independent little state run by hundreds of clans. The clansmen were warriors but also farmers, growing rice along with spices and eventually coffee. Black pepper grows wild here. Trying to find a way to get to it is what led Christopher Columbus to stumble upon North America.

Kodagu didn’t become part of India until the 1950s, and it sounds like many folks today would like to go back to the independent old days. Living in their fertile valleys, shielded from the rest of the world by rugged mountain forests and the dangerous animals who inhabit them, blessed with clean air and a mild climate, Kodagu is a shangri-la — not just for people but for elephants.

We started our first day with elephants. Sheila’s farm manager, Arthur, found us a taxi ($43 for the whole day), and the driver headed northwest for an hour or so. Our destination was the Dubare Elephant Camp, an operation of the state (Karnataka) forest department. I sort of expected this to be a tourist attraction, and it was, but only in the loosest possible sense of that term.

We parked near a bank of the Cauvery River and joined a long queue of Indians waiting to board launches to ferry them to an opposing bank (43 cents per person for the boat ride; 29 cents for the camp admission).In about 15 minutes, Steve and I made it aboard a boat and quickly reached the camp. In the hour and a half we were there, no person, no signs, no brochures told us anything about what the camp is and how it functions. Maybe the Indians thought it was irrelevant. Most folks didn’t come here for helpings of wildlife education: the draw was watching the residents get their morning bath.

Young men were riding big old males and females and youngsters from an upper holding area down to the river… then using that ancient Asian-elephant-control tool, the hook, to make them lay down in the water…or stand patiently while their tusks were cleaned with a sand-paste rub.Poke this baby into the tender spot behind one of those big ears, and you can get a 10,000-pound beast to do what you want!

For an additional 200 rupees ($2.87), one could go down onto the beach and join in the elephant-spa activity. I (naturally) could not resist, but Steve claimed he didn’t want to get wet and so opted to stay on the cliff top and take pictures.

Down on the beach, I edged up to the action, simply watching for a while.It was hard to tell what the elephants thought.It didn’t look like they hated it. But was it pleasurable?

Once or twice, one of the young mahouts interacted with a visitor……as when one wrapped his charge’s trunk around this young lady’s neck, in response to a photo request. But most of the guys ignored the crowd gaping at them and concentrated instead on scrubbing the tough hides.They reminded me of car-wash attendants, irritable because of the long line of customers awaiting service.

I finally petted several animals…I tried to communicate good will with my touch. I ran my fingers over a few tusks, the source of so much elephant suffering and death. Then I rejoined Steve, and we walked to the high ground, where we found workers wrapping up brown rice within handfuls of hay.It did look to me like they enjoyed getting the tasty packages.

We made a couple of other touristic stops that day — toured a nature park; visited a large enclave of TIbetan Buddhist exiles. But our quirky, magical visit to the pachyderms overshadowed everything for me. That and the lunch we had with a friend of Sheila’s.

He met us near the nature park and took us to an exquisite riverside resort for lunch. Madhu is an amazing character: a coffee grower himself, but also a consultant to coffee growers all over the planet. His special (U.N.-recognized) expertise is in sustainable cultivation practices. We talked about coffee-growing and many other things; among them, the local elephants.

“You can kill a man and get away with it,” he declared. “But if you kill an animal here, you’re done for.” The Indian conservation and forestry officials were fierce and effective, he said, and in recent years, the local wild elephant population had grown well. We learned that elephants roam the roads and routinely barge onto fields in Coorg, mainly at night, when they’re foraging. When people harassed them or made them think their babies were threatened, encounters could get ugly. The elephants killed between 15 and 20 Kodagu residents annually, according to Madhu.

“But what does a grower do when a group of elephants comes onto his coffee plantation?” I asked.

The best course was to stay out of their way, Maddhu said. They would soon move on. Trying to chase them away was usually disastrous; frightened, stampeding elephants could do tremendous damage. Left alone, they rarely lingered. And in Kodagu district, an area about a third the size of San Diego County, elephants have lots of alternative eating grounds. Somewhere between a half and two-thirds of the district land is protected tropical rainforest. The only humans who can enter it are forest rangers and hikers with guides.

On our second full day in Coorg, Steve and I got one of those permits and two guides (the minimum acceptable number.) One carried a gun in his backpack, and the other, a 34-year-old guy named Chengappa, had a lot of experience and an okay grasp of English.He seemed to know a lot about the local elephants, so I pelted him with my questions. Elephants in India no longer can be taken from the wild and put to work (as they were for millennia), he told us. But the animals at the Dubare camp (all but the babies) were former “rogues,” individuals who had killed a human or otherwise caused great destruction. Such elephants were tranquillized and brought to a center, where they were (essentially) broken in spirit, re-educated, and used for a weird range of activities — everything from getting all gussied up to march in the biggest annual festival in Mysore, to helping with special logging problems, to being taken into the forest to participate in elephant funerals.

Cheng said in his 8 years of working for the forestry department, he’d never heard of a guide or trekker being hurt by an elephant, but it wasn’t unimaginable, and the forest harbored other scary creatures — the Indian gaur (a buffalo-like animal similar in ferocity to the African Cape buffalo), pit vipers, tigers, leopards, jaguars. The only mammal I saw was a civet, swinging through a giant tree, but the ground was dense with spider webs, some of which built complex tube structures.This guy was about a half-inch tall. The forest also teemed with little leeches…like this one, about an inch in length.

To protect ourselves from them, we all tucked our pants inside our socks, but several still fell from the trees and tried to attach themselves to my bare arms. Each time this happened I knocked them off with a yelp and a shudder.

We covered an eight and a half mile loop that included more tough climbs and descents than Steve and I have done in a while. The terrain we moved through was so dense and varied it felt Jurassic.Sometimes we edged ourselves downward by stepping into little ledges created by the elephant’s footprints, dodging fresh elephant poop. Even though we saw no actual elephants, it warmed my heart to know they still claimed such a breathtaking sanctuary as their home.

Besides sharing that space for a few hours, Steve acquired another souvenir from the hike. When he got back to Sheila’s and took off his shoes and socks, this is what he found:

All the leeches had fallen off, as Cheng said they would. We found them (fat and happy) inside Steve’s shoes, and we discarded them. Strangely enough, not one got to me. Another mystery of nature (or maybe sock mechanics).