Sunday, July 30, 2006

Vijnana Kala Vedi Centre, Aranmula, Kerela: I arrived July 1 in the most south-western state of India, Kerala, after a 50 hour train ride from Delhi (whew... good experience but dont' think I will do that again). Last year I spent a bit of time in Kerala and liked it very much so my plan is to spend more time here this summer. During July I attended a school for the Keralan/Indian arts in a small village called Aranmula. It is about equidistance between the two major cities of Kerala: Trivandum and Cochin. This area which is about an hour from the coast is lush and tropical with banana and palm trees, rice paddies and of course the monsoon is here!

Vijnana Kala Vedi Cultural Centre was started by a French woman about 23 years ago to preserve and promote the traditional arts of Kerala like its music, dance, drama, language, painting, cooking, etc. They also offer languages, introduction to Ayurveda, yoga. I came for the Ayurveda course which was taught to just two students by Dr. Hari Kumar ( He is just excellent and I learned a lot. I also took a traditional Kerala cooking class and Hindi. These classes were taught one to one. Yoga is available most days as drop in class - afterall this is India! The village of Aranmula is lively and the locals find us curious. There are about 20 students at the centre and we reside in one of three houses situated in the village. My house usually has one or two cows out front that cut the grass. There are working elephants in the district and you see them occassionally on the road going here and there with their master (the mahoot). There is a very famous Hindu temple in the village which draws many pilgrims and the chants of the priests seem to go 24 hours - over loud speakers. So this is always in the back ground. There is a sacred river - The Pampa - which is now swollen with monsoon rain. The locals swim in it, but I stayed away from such activity. A couple of weekends ago a few of us headed to the coast to a beach town - Kovalam. Swam in a pool there as the sea is too dangerous. The beach had black sand and because it is low season (monsoon) the room rates at the hotel were about 200 rupees which is about CDN $5.00.

Below are some photos. One is me with a Delhi family. I went to their house for dinner. The others are, Kerala mural painter, sample of traditional Kerala painting, metal worker making mirror, my house in Aranmula, the local corner store, the bicycle repair man, the umbrella repair man ( a very necessary person during monsoon), and elephant going to work.

Well I am out of here as of August 1 and headed to the big city of Cochin. Not sure what August will hold for me. I think I'll travel more throughout Kerala and the state of Tamil Nadu. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Ladakhi woman in tradional dress with prayer wheel and view of Himalaya mountains and fertile valley in Ladakh.

Ladakh. First some background. The state of Jammu & Kashmir in northern India consists of the regions of Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh. Ladakh is predominantly Buddhist with a small Muslim population. Travel advisories issued by foreign gov'ts have lumped Ladakh into the same danger category as Kashmir without making any exception for the city of Leh and the Indus Valley. This is underserved. The Indus Valley is as safe as other parts of India. Ladakh - the land of high passes - separates the peaks of the western Himalaya from the vast Tibetan plateau.It is often called "Lttle Tibet" because of it's similarities in topography and culture with nearby Tibet. The Himalayas are high (6 - 7,000 metres) and snow capped. The valleys are desert like. The Ladakhis are expert farmers / gardeners and use the water resources from the major rivers and mountain streams to their significant advantage. Dotted throught the vast and awesome landscape are villages that are green, green, green. They are like an oasis in a sea of brown, red, orange, purple and green rock. (see photo included) The temperature this time of year can be extreme - 30 degrees in the day to -3 degrees at night. The sun is brilliant due to high altitude and less pollution and the stars shine so bright and are so plentiful you have trouble picking out the constellations.

Trekking / hiking is one of the major activity here, plus visiting Buddhist gompas (monastries) which dominate the landscape.

Leaving the excruciating heat of Delhi, June 15, I took the one hour flight to Leh and spent two weeks travelling around the Indus and Nubra valleys by jeep and doing some hiking and visiting gompas. Flying to Leh is challenging on two fronts - the security is extreme and at an altitude of 3,500 metres you invariably suffer some symptions of altitude sickness. Luckily I was not viewed as a risk and had little AMS to contend with probably due to all the high altitude hiking I did previously in Uttaranchal.

Some of the highlights for me was hiking up to the Kardung La Pass. We had started out by jeep but because it had snowed the night before, many vehicles were stuck. Rather than wait around I walked up the road the final 5 km to the "highest motorable pass in the world" at 5,602 metres (about 18,000 feet). Quite spectacular. We were headed into the Nubra Valley. On the way back to Leh, three days later, there was a snow avalanche and once again I walked up to the pass, while they dug out with one broken shovel and a pie plate. Don't ask me why eveyone doesn't carry a shovel in this region but they don't. Later in the week we happened upon a festival at a monastry in Lamayuru (the oldest known gompa in Ladakh) which was colourful and riveting. One of the best things about it was all the locals were there wearing their traditional dress which was fantastic (see other photo). The village of Alchi and it's gompa was so picturesque and restul we stayed an extra night to enjoy it. I stayed at the Zimskhang Guest House and shared a room (with a British woman who I was travelling with) for 500 rupees / night which is roughly $12 - $13 between the two of us. My base of operation in Leh was the family run guest house call the Oriental (350 rupees / night about $8) and both I would highly recommend if you ever come to Ladakh.

One last gompa - Thiksey - 17 km south of Leh is well worth the visit in early morning (6:00 a.m.) to hear the monks observe puja (morning prayers). Lots of chanting, banging on drums and blowing of horns.

So, on June 28 I flew out of Leh and returned to the heat of Delhi. Monsoon is late and the heat is oppressive. I had unfortunately been violently ill the night before my flight so arrived in the city in a weakened state and it took some time to recover. Guess it was something I ate !?!. Next stop .... Kerala in South India.