Saturday, 10 March 2012

Varkala, Kerala

'Gods own country'
A statewide slogan for this place
This clay pot has found a restful place.. Likely remnants of a past ceremony
My adventures southwards from Port Kochi
 have brought me across this magical corner of Kerala, it is less of 
a corner & far more of a sprawling oasis-like beach destination! It is quite
easy to observe the days slipping effortlessly into weeks here as life can 
(if you allow it!)gracefully unfurl in a diverse range of relaxing experiences. 
Traditionally this place is quite sacred to those of the Hindu religion. The main 
beach here is called 'Papanasam', as it translates into 'redemption from sins' it is 
very popular as a Hindu pilgrimage site. Many mornings on my way along 
the beach for my sunrise yoga session, I have come across preparations for 
purification (pooja) ceremonies. Holy men, accompanied by a small group of 
disciples are usually found methodically reciting mantras (incantation or prayers) 
while burning incense & splashing rose water on offerings placed on banana leaves. 
Each time the ceremony would move into a new stage by having the bundle 
sacrilegiously tossed backwards over one of the disciples heads into 
the ocean! Ending with a distinct sense of joy overwhelming them 
- as if knowing their prayers had just been received!~

The beach is seen here from up upon the
cliff. It is facing westwards into Arabian sea,
the northern section of the Indian Ocean.

 Emerging along the cliff there are many freshwater springs that meander effortlessly
along hosting diverse ranges of wildlife & biodiversity, before eventually draining off
into the ocean. Here a white crane is seen, lazily passing the heat of the day away
before continuing the hunt (near sunset/sunrise) for small fish, crabs & other edibles.
Intricacies of the natural movement
of underground water from the aquifers
form these unique branch-like patterns
within the sands. Oftentimes resembling
tree-branches, the alveoli of the lungs or
mountain ranges as seen from a
birds eye perspective.
'Natura naturans'

Alas the 'Wish fulfilling tree' or in sanskrit it is known
as 'Kalpa vriksha', 'the tree which provides all the necessities of life'.
Those who live here have an incredible range of purpose for these palms.
Ranging (but not limited to) from; food, building materials,
natural fibre sources, medicine & ceremonial applications.
There is a saying by the locals here,
"water the tree for five years, reap coconuts for life".

On my way to the beach, one of
my favorite places to stop first thing
in the morning was to see this gentlemen.
The 'Purveyor of Coconuts' as I referenced him!
He was one of the most skilled in his art
that I have seen in india thus far. He could accurately
determine the ripeness of a coconut simply by taping his
blade on the outside and observing the resonance of the coconut.
If you wanted thick & mature coconut meat as more of a meal,
the message would be conveyed through saying "to eat, to eat"
& motioning towards your mouth. Though if you wanted a really
soft & sweet young coconut, you would simply gesture "jelly, jelly".
If you only want one to drink, you would say just that - 'to drink, to drink'!
Numerous times I saw him going off into the jungle with his son to
harvest coconuts. His son, usually carrying the thick coconut
rope that would be used to climb the palms.
A family adventure~!

Above is the traditional method for eating the coconut meat.
After enjoying the water, he would quickly halve & cut a portion of the shell
off into a 'spoon-like' utensil! How utilitarian can these people be?!?
Then I am reminded about how many thousands of years of
practice they have had~
For the duration 
of my visit here in Varkala, I was living in 'south cliff'. 
I found a clean & welcoming homestay located about 3 minutes from the beach, 
it was called 'Nikhil Guesthouse'. I really enjoyed having a juicebar in the same 
building that I was staying in (all juice 30rps- $0.60cnd), though sometimes it 
appeared that they had trouble getting fruit!
A quandary I wouldn't of thought of in the tropics, especially
if it is in season! One morning I was inquiring about an orange juice..
I was told that they would be delivered in '10 minutes', indian time...
 Upon my return that evening, they still had not received the oranges & again
told me they would be here in '10 minutes', at 10:30 at night! For all of the readers 
out there who know of my 'peculiar' relationship with time, I am beginning to 
taste this same medicine! Oh how the great wheel of karma continues to spin! Hah~

Of the Hundreds of cups of 'Chai' that I've come across at the countless chai stands.
This guy has some of the best presentation that I've lent witness to. It is not simply
about the way that he effortlessly makes each cup of chai with such attention to detail.
His posture, composure & overall state of 'being one with the chai' is ever-present!
One of the secrets I have found in composing a perfect cup, is in the texturing.
Pouring from one cup to another (varying heights infuse qualitative differences
amongst the degrees of frothynesss' - if thats a word :P) completely
dissolves the sugar & combines all ingredients soo ideally!
I love it so much~!!!~

childs footprint
ephemerally imprinted
upon these sands
soon to be

Papanasam beach is one of the major tourist attractions on the coast
in Kerala. Rightly so as it is so rich with so many avenues of culture,
both domestic & international cross-pollinating in this haven.
The government of Kerala seems dedicated to cleaning up the beaches
here & making them more appealing to an international crowd.
Seen here is a group of ladies who are part of a group funded
to travel the beaches(frequently in the heat of the day!) & tidy up.
A service that is fairly unique to this little part of India.
They love they're beaches & so do many others.
One of the cleanest freshwater creeks that I have seen, draining into the ocean.
This one is downstream from innumerable coconut & banana plantations.
Common hunting ground for many different types of birds.
In the evenings walking along the beaches here, hundreds
of crabs could be seen scampering about.
Some moving dazzlingly quick for their size.
The larger ones were near to impossible to sneak up upon,
as their sensitivities to detect predators had been honed incredulously.
The smaller ones, not so much! I made a game of catch & release with them.
It was a game of wits, to see who could move faster!
The moment I had one clasped in my hand I would release
to avoid the incoming pinching attack!
I stand unbeaten, never once pinched - Mwaha!
A pleasant site to see in India.
Open prohibition towards littering
is nearly unheard of in the majority
of where Ive been sofar.

The land is held sacred here just as much as the water is revered.
Looking closely, a labyrinth has been etched into the sands.
This symbol has been used for thousands of years as a
meditative tool. Walking the path into the center, allows one to
loose track of direction & disconnect with the outside world
thus rendering a deepened contemplative state.
"It is a confusing path, hard to follow without a thread, but,
provided [the traverser] is not devoured at the midpoint, it leads
surely, despite twists and turns, back to the beginning."
-Plato, from the socratic dialogue 'Euthydemus'

Here the beaches are oftentimes scattered
with ruins of old sand castles, spiraling sacred symbols &
abstractions of human expression.
A Hindu lady is seen here selling various
plant materials. Bundles of paan, necklaces
of mint/various flowers & strings of jasmyn
flowers which can be customarily
seen tied into the hair of young
girls or offered by many
at sacred sites.

This caption is of the pond at the Janardana Swami Temple, it is another
site of Hindu pilgrimage in the area. Janardana Swami is
another manifestation of Lord Vishnu. According to tradition,
unless you are a devout Hindi you are not typically
welcomed to bathe in these waters. A custom that is commonly
held at many of the temples around india. Also the general public is normally
welcome into the outer portion of the sacred sites, though the inner sanctum
is typically 'off-limits' to those who are not Hindu.
The is Meenakshi - an avatar of the goddess
Parvati, a consort to Lord Shiva~
She is portrayed here slaying a demon, an aspect of 'maya':
the illusory world that misleads seekers of truth.

The steps leading upwards to The Janardana Temple Site.
Here many Hindus come to make offerings to those departed
souls of their forefathers/mothers, this is considered very highly.
There are four poojas(religious ritual) held here each day. These 
ceremonies involve an offering or gift, usually in the form of currency to
various deities or significant beings in exchange for their blessings.

Here, I saw a tree
with thousands of toy dolls tied within the branches. There was a 'holy man' 
whom explained to me that it was called a 'naga tree' and that many couples who 
were seeking to have a child, would come, make an offering & 
hang a doll in the tree, symbolic of 
the prayers they have made.

~An eight petalled lotus
a merkaba
equipped with
the sound of creation~


'Say that five times while upside down & drinking a coconut'...
come on double I dare you!~
These uniquely uneven stairs were an effective mode for traversing
down to the oceanside. Seen below, this is the only place along
the coastline of southern Kerala that has cliffs alongside the Ocean.
They are known to geologists as the 'Varkala formation' & are considered
a Geological monument as declared by the Geological Survey of India.

They have formed into almost column-like pillars in some points.
They've reminded me of the 'hoodoo' formations native to southeastern Alberta slightly.
Innumerable days can be easily spent on the beaches during a visit here.
Many of mine certainly were! Temperatures ranging from 34-38c are quite common
around this time of year. During the heat of the day while lounging upon the sands it
is not unusual for the thermometer to exceed 40c. A local man is pictured above
 wearing an umbrella hat. Standing next to a fishermans boat that will likely
venture out to set fishing nets shortly for the evening catch. 

Unbeknownst to the untrained eye, the currents on the beaches of Varkala
are incredibly strong. Numerous times while out swimming, drifting out past
the toppling waves I found myself out quite significantly further than 
I had intended to be! 'Dont Panic' is the essential reasoning which
meticulously diffuses any such situation. Proceeded by swimming as 
horizontally as possible (closest to the surface), without straining 
you shall return from whence you came in a jiffy!

Out walking along the sands
one afternoon, this weathered
image of Shiva & Parvati was nestled
amongst the rocks.

An cxecutive resort cottage hut is seen above.
Where I was staying I was spending 400rps($8cdn) a night, a comparable
rate to many other guesthouses in the area. It was a 1000sq. foot
room with a private bath attached with decently fast wi-fi included,
a respectable rate considering how welcoming & clean the guesthouse was.
The cottage hut was available for 4500rps a night, it seemed slightly underkept
 & entirely vacant though it certainly had character!

Through happenstance, one day I found bulk raw almonds
available in the local marketplace (500rps/kg-$10cnd).
I was ecstatic, shortly after I began soaking & sprouting these
precious little protein packages of raw life-force enchancing energy!
It was hot enough for me to dehydrate them simply by leaving them
in open air after soaking them for 12 hours or so - in my room! They were
fully dehydrated in less than 3days - with the delicate crispy
texture that I so love about sprouted almonds~

A contemporary form of
Shiva in an artfully expressive mural.
He has received some serious style in this incarnation!~
~I love it~

In 1957 Kerala democratically elected a communist government!!! – the first 
place in the world to do so. Kerala’s unique blend of democratic-socialist principles 
has an impressive history. It has been labelled ‘the most socially advanced state in India’ 
by Nobel prize- winning economist Amartya Sen. The literacy rate (being 91%) is one of
the highest of any developing nation, though the strong history of education stretches 
back centuries to the days of  righteous rajas and active 
missionaries canonizing the locals!

Amidst the marketplace along the ridge, I came across
an artists booth who had an array of politically charged pieces.
I found particular appreciation in the one pictured above. The juxtaposition
of a figure normally associated with violent opposition has
been transformed into a mercenary of piece!

A traveling artist is busily recreating
this mural, located adjacent to the beach.
This is one of the only places in india
where I have seen openly
expressed graffiti styled art.

In Varkala, there is a section of vendors
clearly from Tibet. Boasting a diverse
array of Tibetan wares, the "Free Tibet"
movement has a strong following here.
A portrayal of Ganesha in one of his many forms.
Upon further investigation (with the artist whom I found working on it numerous times),
he had invested around 3 months of painting into this piece(sofar & it was nearly done).
Though with the nature of the work not necessarily being consistant, it had considerable
intricacy woven within it. Much of which is not available to be replicated by this
photo. It was a custom piece which he was selling for $600 euros.

Another of many meandering pathways
slithering downwards to the sandy

Many local fisherman could easily be found in the shade
(esp. during the heat of the day) laboriously preparing for future journeys
out onto the open seas. Either repairing damaged nets or
(as seen above) sewing sections
of new nets together.

Fishing is a family activity & has been for thousands of years.
Here is a son of one of the men whom just recently returned with the days catch.
Though not quite old enough to journey out onto the open seas, he seemed more than
ambitious in helping to collect the fish once they had returned to the beach.
One evening there was a what looked like a 'rock-fish' - a specimen with extensive
spines & sharpened points protruding along the fish (not large - 8" or so).
This young lad freely handled it as if there was nothing to it!
Naturally born to be one with the sea.

The local catch is an important part of the income
for many families here. The seafood can be incredibly fresh, though
it was quite frequent to see many fish being packed back up after a night on the 'ice' & not sold!
I pondered upon the fate of these fish & never quite came to any conclusion! It seemed that the
majority of the fish sold, normally would be cut right in front of you upon request. Frankly though,
the majority of the reviews of the seafood were emphatically positive about the quality available.
Red cod, swordfish, squid, octopus, tuna & tiger prawns frequented many-O-plates here!

Alas the fresh sacred spring waters of India have been found!
Along the cliffs here are numerous aquifers of freshwater freely flowing
into the Arabian Sea. Many of them occur with just enough flow to trickle softly,
bubbling gently out of the sands after being filtered for thousands of years by the earth. 
One day, walking along the beach I came upon a group of people freely filling
bottle after bottle of this fresh spring water. After thoroughly questioning many groups
(upon several visits) of people of the purity of this water & having each testimony
lending to its validity of being clean drinking water, I further proceeded to enjoy
these refreshing waters - straight from deep within the earth!
Many of the locals whom I inquired with about these waters, told 
me how they've been consuming them for years with no ill-effects. 
Abundantly bountiful India - strikes again!
Sitting cliffside at 'Abba', one of the restaurants here
where I have found the salads to be quite agreeable with my body.
Above is a spinach salad with various fixings & a lemon-mint juice.
This was one of my favorite ways to 'break-my-fast' in the mornings after a
sunrise session of yoga on the beach. There are many different places here that
offer many forms of yoga instruction, though I have none to lend testimony too!
I found focus in my self led practice with others upon the beach, listening to the
crashing waves, breathing deeply & observing activities involved in the
blossoming of a brand new day. 

A sunset.
The closing of a cycle.
Hindus have been coming to this beach for thousands
of years to offer the cremated remains of they're
relatives back into the ocean. Belief in the sanctity
of these waters has long been revered.

~'Aum Namah Shivaya'~

Saturday, 3 March 2012

7300ft. into the sky & back down to Sea-level!

This entry begins way up amongst The Nilgiris Mountains of western Tamil Nadu. 
These are a part of the larger Western Ghat range that borders Karnataka & Kerala. Also known as the 'Blue Mountains'(Nilgiri in Tamil means Blue), verily so as it boasts some of the most abundantly dense eucalyptus, cedar & pine forests I have come across traveling India thus far. I am still uncertain as to why they are called the blue mountains though, whether being associated with the bluish hue that the eucalyptus trees emanate or if it is associated with the kurunji flowers that bloom every 12 years which also release a bluish frequency. Alongside these cloud kissing peaks, rushing rivers, undulating emerald green mountainsides of tea/wattle plantations, countless exotic species & breath taking panoramic views easily remind you to take one step at a time when you are traveling here. The sudden dropping cliff-sides may not seem so appealing when you see them to 'close' for comfort... unless you come prepared for rock climbing & repelling - as some travel here to do so!

This Land is Highly revered for many reasons!
The Nilgiris Biosphere reserve is being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 
Contained here by the soaring mountains, is The Mudumalai Natural Wildlife Sanctuary & Tiger reserve(321 sq. km). It is home to many endangered species like the Indian Elephant, Bengal Tigers, Leopards, Guar (the massive Indian Bison!) & hundreds of bird species. It was one of the first wildlife sanctuaries established in India & rightly so considering the biodiversity cradled here.

A soaring eucalyptus forest~
Breatheeee Deep :)

On our way up into the mountains, the sides of the valleys are covered with tea plantations. Black & Orange Pekoe are the main varieties that are grown here. The majority of the crop is from small family plantations(100-200ha) with over 50% of the annual crop exported, a portion as very high quality tea & some of it is used for blending purposes (usually lower quality tea).
The union of the long needled pine with the sprawling cedar leaves~
Oh how it reminds me of western canada!

On one of our day trips around Ooty we took a tour out
through the tea plantations, Mudumalai Wildlife reserve & various
other scenic lookouts and places of interest.
I did not see any tigers on this excursion, though wild elephants, peacocks,
one crocodile, countless types of unidentified birds & spotted deer.
Traveling along from site to site, it always seemed as though when the
tour guide was explaining things it seemed like 10 times longer when
he was speaking in tamil/hindi than when he gazed over and offered
a quick sentence in english. Another aspect of living across the language

I came across this specimen that looks suprisingly like
 milk thistle, a plant I am quite familiar with.
Traveling here in india my perception of taxonomy &
biodiversity has significantly expanded, I frequently see plant
relatives with no definitive identification.

A close-up of a Eucalyptus variety, which is a commonly cultivated
tree in the Indian sub-continent. It is largely used for the essential oil
content within the leaves, which could be frequently seen being
collected by indian ladies on the sides of the roads, in parks, in the forests
& in any other random location where leaves might happen to fall!
If there is anything I have learnt about the people here, its of they're
'opportunitarian' like tendencies!
beautiful flower..
stretching beyond
my idiosyncratic
ideals of
Up high in these beautiful mountains is
where I have breathed the cleanest,
most refreshing & uplifting
air in India~ sofar...
The abode of the Gods ~ this place is certain to be..

A cultivated variety of what I believe to be part of the Sedum genus.
A relative of those 'hens & chicks' that some of our parents grew in the
gardens as we were growing up. There are many subspecies here - there were easily
35-40 different ones in this one garden center! The biodiversity here in india is astonishing.
I am learning about new plants nearly everyday & experiencing a constant
sense of being humbled by how rich this country is.
Yup - you guessed it... it seems like another sedum variety!
During our stay in Ooty (Ootacamund), which is the most popular mountain station town in the Nilgiris. There were a number of nights where it was actually fairly cool, considering we were equipped for tropical traveling. Temperatures ranging from 15-20c during the day and down to 3-5c in the evening, making this place the coldest place visited thus far in india. Slightly chillly, nothing that my comfort zones from living through many Canadian winters cannot handle.
One of the cleanest rivers I have come across.
Beautifully rushing rapids, with school children on a day trip all around
playing games, laughing, singing while soaking ones feet & being
 refreshed by pure mountain waters.

downwards from
these high mountain peaks..
We move westwards towards the Arabian Sea,
 to the Town of Kochi.

We found ourselves a quaint homestay in Port Cochi, hosted by an upper middle class
Catholic familywhom embodied quite the hospitable vibe. We spent a number of days
here, my sister was recently recovering from a bout of food poisoning which we are still
uncertain about the origins of. She speedily made her recovery & we spent our time
exploring the rich market places, the constantly active port with fisherman &
trades-ships busily moving about. We also found an adventure journeying into the
Backwaters of Kerala. On a day-trip moving along the channels we had the opportunity
to explore how they fabricate rope from coconut fibre, the process of heating/reducing
seashells down into calcium carbonate powder & a family garden growing a variety of the
local spices. South India is host to some of the worlds most diverse spice & incense markets.
Chilis, peppercorns, vanilla,  cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cacao, cardamon,
frankincense, sandalwood, rose, & eucalyptus
are a small fraction of what is available locally here.
A contrast between the ripened red chili peppers & the unripened green chilis, originating from
the same plant the main difference is the harvest time. Frequently used in many traditional indian
dishes, it can offer quite the suprising explosion of spicyness especially if one was not expecting
the burning sensation. I have come across a number of moments such as these while casually
 enjoying a delightful new dish of which India has an overwhelming menu to offer. The conspicuous
texture & pre-spicy flavor are immediately distinguished as they arise, foreshadowing the incoming
rush of endorphins surging through the blood which is accelerated by the increased heart-rate
& perspiration. Some may find this experience of extremes to be quite appealing, I can certainly
empathize. Each state here has its own style of dishes equipped with complex textures,
flavors & sensations. A certainty which allows for perpetual originality, sometimes
appealing while others not so much so!
One of the common dishes found upon many of the menus here is called thali (ta'li).
Varying from one region to the next, they oftentimes include a portion of rice, dhal,
vegetables curry, roti/padadom, curd (yoghurt) & chutney. Available in both vegetarian
and meat based styles, they are traditionally served on a freshly harvested 'halved' banana leaves.
Which allows for an easily disposable & biodegradable cleanup!

Mingling throughout the markets, there are many marvels awaiting exploration.
Seen here are 'star of david' shaped pasta! Sold alongside a variety of of legumes,
a plethora of different styles of rice (in one market I counted upwards of 12 varietes!)
& countless vegetables/fruits known and unknown to my palette.

The work of a local artist I met alongside the ocean
in Port Kochi. Portraying the countryside of Cochi
in an idealistic sense. This is a beautiful part of Kerala though
it is a major port-city which comes along with a modest degree
of garbage & pollution. With trailing piles of detritus alongside the roads
& frequently floating bits of plastic in the ocean, it is still significantly cleaner
than many other places in India.

Across the bay from Port Kochi is Vypeen island. The western
coastline here has one of the cleanest & longest beaches in the area, Cherai beach.
During my short visit here (on a sunday, which made it one of the busiest days of the week),
large crowds (thousands) of Indians were found taking day trips here. There were many playing
games I did not quite grasp & other groups sharing meals with countless children playing in the water.
Laughter & joy was being experienced in many different ways.
The adventures into the backwaters revealed
 beautiful & oftentimes primitive aspects of the lives of those
who live here. Seen above is a load of sand enroute to some
distant construction site. While appearing to
be inundated at the same time this boat
was moving about with suprising control.

Ever wonder where all those coconuts come from?!
Here is a sprouting coconut with outstretched roots making a run for it!
Coconuts have been a source of solace for me here in india. It has not been unusual
for me to sit down and enjoy 2 or 3 or 4 of them in a sitting! My favorite coconuts
are usually the young immature ones which are full of water & have soft gelatinous
fruit, in contrast to the mature coconut where the majority of the water has solidified
into firm coconut meat. The alkalizing, nutrifying, hydrating & satisfying nature
of these precious seeds of life certainly do not go unnoticed!

Our maiden voyage into the Backwaters of Kerala began here.
This trusty vessel was constructed from wild jack fruit wood, bamboo & banana palms.
Adding to the authenticity to this rustic adventure. Where ever we 'docked', the boatsmen
would haphazardly place a board from the bow to the shore, frequently shifting with the water
currents & the wind. We were traveling with a group of 12-15 others, a number of them older
european couples whom seemed to be unimpressed by the lack of hand rails & security
features for boarding & disembarking! Another aspect of india where you travel at your
own risk, well for some atleast..
Seen here is a container attached to a coconut palm flower that has been incised.
The collection of the sap of the tree can be readily drank (known as toddy or neera) or it can
be fermented (simply known as palm wine), and distillation can further produce another
traditional alcoholic drink(known as arrack/coconut vodka) it is frequently flavored with anise.
Generally it was recommended by locals to be avoided as there is no regulation in its production. 
On the backwaters tour, we boarded another smaller boat in the afternoon.
With this one we went into another section of the backwaters that were
significantly smaller with a crew member whom spoke broken english at best.
A blissfully relaxing way to spend a day right before we went off traveling
to our next destinations. Aya went north to Rishikesh to study yoga & pursue her
passions, while I went south to Varkala to spend time soaking
up the sun, swimming & surrendering to the cosmic ebb & flow.
A view of the overgrown backwaters are seen here.
Traveling along through these narrow channels, we
often came across 90degree turns, other incoming boats
 and shallow portions that appeared to be no deeper than 12".
The boatsmen skillfully navigated utilizing the traditional
tool of choice - the 10' bamboo pole

Our visit to one of the homes along the canals
brought us to a number of magical different plants.
Peppercorn, vanilla, tapioca, nutmeg/mace
& cacao were seen. Above is a nutmeg tree
which is an evergreen & is also one of the
only tropical fruit plants which yields 2
different spices. 'Mace' is the powdered
reddish covering of the seed &
nutmeg is the inner portion.

Here it is, one of my favorite plants on earth.
Theobroma cacao pods produce 20-50 chocolate beans that are suspended inside a white
pulpy fruit. Raw chocolate is one of my favorite medicines & it is among one of the most
complex foods that we know of. It has a pharmacological profile that is well beyond
the scope of  this blog. Many have revered this plant for thousands of years & the range
of uses for this plant is extensive. Simply put:
"Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed,
divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine."
- Geronimo Piperni, quoted by Antonio Lavedan, Spanish army surgeon, 1796

Stay Tuned, an update from Varkala, Kerala is coming up shortly!
This land is referenced by the locals as
~"Gods own country"~