Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ten more thoughts on India

Ten more observations about India, having just returned from my trip there.

1. I went down to the southern most tip of India, where I was able to simultaneously swim in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal. There was a shrine there in memory of Mohandas Ghandi. The shrine had a picture of Ghandi, with what I'm relatively sure is a Christian halo around his head, which I've only otherwise seen for saints. Similarly, the language in the English version of the text near him made more "virgin" references then I'm used to in Hindu sources. It's fascinating that India's Christian population also has a significant following for Ghandi, despite him not being a Christian.

2. We stayed in the Leela in Kovalam Beach, which was gorgeous, though at times a bit inept. India is still barely electronic in their administrative functions, and so in the shuffles of papers things get lost. Despite telling the hotel when we checked in last Sunday that we were checking out on Thursday, they seemed to think that we were checking out Wednesday and began demand we vacate the room because they were full. Eventually the conference staff intervened on our behalf, but it was amazing that they would consider kicking out paying guests because of a snafu on their part.

3. Luckily, we didn't have to stay in one of the other conference hotels, the Uday Samudra, where we heard the rooms were not great, and everyone got sick from the food.

4. After the conference, we drove a few hours up north. Indian driving is something I have never seen before. Down here, it's not mass chaos, like Cairo, but it is crazy. First of all, you have vehicles sharing the road of vastly different cruising speeds (from bicycles to mopeds to three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, to cars, buses, and trucks). On mostly two lane roads, faster vehicles have to have some means of passing slower ones. What happens is that the middle of the road becomes a passing lane, used by traffic in both directions. If that weren't terrifying enough, if a medium speed vehicle is passing in the center and a high speed vehicle (like our driver's car) wants to pass, he goes fully into the oncoming traffic lane. Somehow the system seemed to work. While India has very high car crash rates, I happened to see none when I was there.

5. Farther north, we spent a night on a houseboat, exploring the backwaters of that area. It was wonderful - relaxing, comfortable, with great food. Apparently there are 500 houseboats in that area, each few owned by a different person. The boats contract with the tour companies which then contract with the drivers and the hotels. It seems to be a good system, though our hotel (Greenshore Apartments - see below) did not charge us a commission, which is very nice of them.

6. The tuxedo, mentioned in my previous post, came exactly as specified - without a doubt best fitting two pieces of clothing that I own. I highly recommend Duron Tailors. Bring many pictures of what you want, and ideally a driver or friend who speaks Malayalam (though their English is passable).

7. If you are looking for an inexpensive, comfortable place to stay on the beach, Greenshore Apartments is a great option. It has kind, helpful staff and charming British owners.

8. The religious harmony in India was absolutely incredible. We saw nothing but Christian, Muslims, and Hindus living side by side in accommodating peace (dietary requirements respected - it took our Hindu driver to explain why the tailors were closed for 3 hours Friday afternoon - the owners are Muslim). Our of Greenshore's 4 staff members one is of each religion and they get their respective Sabbaths off

9. Trivandrum Airport (TRV) does not understand internet boarding passes (the kind you get when you check in online and then print them from your computer). They kept asking for our "original" boarding passes and then finally sent us all the way back to check-in (past immigration) to get them. Hand luggage also all has to be tagged, so we would have been in trouble even if they accepted the boarding passes. This level of anachronistic incompetence at an international airport is incredible. Maybe Qatar Airways shouldn't laud their online check-in system if the local airports can't handle it.

10. Finally, the Sunday morning flight from TRV-DOH (Doha), as to be expected, is almost all men commuting for work. (Remember that the work week starts on Sunday in Muslim countries.)

That's all! Anyone traveling to Kerala please get in touch with me for more travel tips.

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