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a travel blog by ECRadventure

Just a little trip. A little trip of freedom to do what you choose, think and feel with passion and creativity, to love, to live, to be.
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Kochi ... fishing nets, spices and backwaters

Kochi, India, India

We stepped off the plane in Cochin into the humid tropical heat. The 10 days of relative cold in northern India somehow made us forget the past 4 months of 90-100% humidity and +30 degree temperatures we got used to. Cochin is a diverse port city, spreading over 5 islands and peninsulas. The main town, Ernakulam, is on the mainland. All the islands are connected by a ferryboat network and a few small bridges. Around the headland of Fort Cochin, a group of cantilevered Chinese fishing nets dip into the sea at high tide to bring up fish.

After checking into our hotel, the Casino (sadly there were no betting tables, seems a bit like false advertising) we headed out for an evening harbor cruise. It was a typical tourist boat with old plastic chairs and a fresh coat of paint. For some reason we had the boat to ourselves, it could probably have seated 20. The harbor is quite industrial and not overly scenic, but the sight of the fishing nets at sunset from the water was really amazing. The Chinese fishing nets were erected between AD 1350 and 1450 by Chinese merchants. The nets are made of teak wood and bamboo poles and work on the principle of balance; they are lowered to the bottom of the river/estuary and after some time lifted out, trapping the fish in the nets. The fishermen weren’t lucky when we were there and only caught a few small fish. We on the other hand were quite lucky and got to see 4 dolphins swimming a few meters from the boat!

The next morning we were off on a tour of the old Cochin area. Our first stop was St. Francis Church, which has been in the hands of every nation that landed in Kerala. Originally there was a Syrian church here since the founding of Christianity when St. Thomas arrived in this region in 52 AD. It is also said by some of the conspiracy theorists that Jesus was not killed by crucifixion and instead that he settled in this area. The Portuguese came next and were surprised to see Christianity already having a strong hold on the local residents; they only had to try to convert them to Catholicism. Next came the Dutch, followed by the British who all renovated and added their touches to this Church.
After the Church, we strolled around the old town and eventually came to visit Mattancherry Palace, which was a donation to the local king by the British after their troops had plundered a local Hindu temple. The ruling family is no longer in power and the palace and a few other artifacts are all that remain of the dynasty.

Just a few steps from the palace is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, which traces its history to nearly 2000 years ago. In 1948 the community numbered 2500 and today there are fewer than 30 people. The one Jewish family that remains is still centered round the original community and its crown Jewel, the Paradesi Synagogue. Built in 1568 and reconstructed after a Portuguese bombardment in 1662, the synagogue is distinguished by its tile roof and bell tower. The small synagogue is also known for its hand-painted, willow-patterned, blue and white Chinese floor tiles, and the many brass and crystal lamps that hang from the ceiling donated from all around the world.

At night we headed back into town to watch a Kathakali dance presentation. This style of dance involves years of rigorous training to develop facial muscles and hand gestures that convey the various stories. The dancers have an uncanny ability to contort their faces into very many positions. The show started with an explanation of the dance culture and a demonstration of the expressions used. Then we were treated to an excerpt from a Hindu story about a Prince in heaven and an evil lady demon from hell who tries to seduce him (because of course it’s always the women who are bad pfft). During some festivals these dance presentations can last from 8 in the evening until 8 the next morning. It was truly amazing to watch this type of performance, we’ve never seen anything like it.

permalink written by  ECRadventure on February 11, 2010 from Kochi, India, India
from the travel blog: ECRadventure's Travel Blog
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Thekkadi ... jungle trecking and backwater crusing

Thekkadi, India

The next day we were excited to get to Thekkady, even despite the six hour drive to get there! The landscape changed from estuaries and rice paddies to rolling hills, coffee, tea, and spice plantations. This region is known for growing just about any spice you can imagine and these spices are a defining element of human history. Europeans waged wars and traveled the world in search of routes with better access to these earthly riches. The area grows cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, coffee, tea, vanilla, star anise, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, chilies sandalwood even frankincense and mirh! Along with this you can find many kinds of nuts including almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and many types of fruit including pineapple, mangoes, oranges, bananas melons, and the list goes on! This was the first time we’ve seen the plants that produce a lot of these spices and nuts. For foodies like us this was a real treat.

The road to Thekkady was lined with plantations and surprisingly …. mansions. The plantation owners are well off and built themselves near palace like homes, and why not? They are all brightly colored and gated. Along the way there were many stupas or small 3 story shrines to central figures of Christianity (Mary, Jesus, and various saints). These sights were amazing enough to take our minds off the ever present threat of a head on collision on the tiny narrow road (with no guard rails) that switch-backed up the mountain side with cars constantly dodging oncoming buses and rickshaws.

On our first night we attended a local martial arts performance. The local guide told us that this style of martial arts is the foundation of all the martial arts from around the world, and that it was spread by the early Hindu and Buddhist monks who traveled to Asia. The individuals who practice this art are extremely disciplined, often devoting their life to the practice. It involves yoga like movements, training with a variety of weapons and then at the most advanced stages, training in hand-to-hand combat. Watching the performance reminded Chad of his years in Tai-kwon-do as a child (minus the swords and fire jumping).

The next morning we slept through our 4:50 am wake-up call and were late for our pick up to head out to the Periyar wildlife sanctuary. This is one of the biggest wildlife reserves in India. It is home to Indian elephants, wild boars, lion-tailed monkeys, ibex, tigers, leopards and sloth bears. The sanctuary is also rich in bird life there are great hornbills, kites, darters, herons, egrets, owls and kingfishers. At least this is what all of the brochures say. Despite the long drive to get there in near freezing temperatures (seriously it wasn’t much warmer than 5 degrees and we were in shorts) at the break of dawn, we managed to see a total of two giant squirrels, two bison from a distance of over 500m and three packs of monkeys. Our guide told us that the reserve has around 1000 elephants and 44 tigers. However, they only see elephants 3-4 times a week and in 5 years he has only seen a tiger from a distance 5 times. We are not surprised after all it’s not a Zoo to watch animals but rather a place for them to live a decent life not hounded by humans. Surrounding the reserve are many small spice plantations and we spent an absorbing afternoon searching for pepper, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and betel. The day wasn’t a waste, the 9km hike through the jungle was a great reminder of how much we both really appreciate nature and exercise, both of which we’ve been lacking lately. After the reserve we went back to the hotel to relax and attempt to coax the kittens from their hole. There were two kittens and their momma who were living beside our door. After the two days of troubling the kittens they got us back! They woke us in the middle of the night playing with Chad’s socks that were hanging on a chair drying; but they were too cute to be mad at!

We were set for our last adventure in India, a houseboat trip down the Periyar river from Kumarokom to Alleppy. What we didn't read in the details of the trip itinerary was that we would have to drive almost 5 hours from Thekkady in order to reach the boat. Coming down the mountain through the switchbacks was an adventure in not trying to throw up in the car.

When we finally pulled up to the dock to see a 40 foot boat waiting for us we knew we would have a great night. Turns out we’d be cruising in style …we had the whole boat to ourselves, including a staff of three. On the cruise down the backwaters we caught a glimpse of the rural life, farmers working in rice paddies and people taking their evening bath in the river in front of their house. The cook on the boat made us a traditional Kerela dinner, there was so much food! We enjoyed Valentine’s Day with a beautiful sunset and nothing but the sound of nature. This was our last night in India and it ended very sweetly. The next morning we were leaving India and starting our tour of Jordan.

permalink written by  ECRadventure on February 13, 2010 from Thekkadi, India
from the travel blog: ECRadventure's Travel Blog
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Amman ...

Amman, Jordan

On our last morning in India we were up early and had a great breakfast from room service and were off to the airport for our flight to Jordan. We arrived early especially since it was an international flight and because of all of the tight security at Indian airports. There were many last minute check-ins from the locals who never think they need to arrive early and therefore are always late. We arrived early only to find that we had arrived too early with nothing to do. The Cochin airport security was not as strict and there was nothing to occupy our time. Our flight had a lay-over in Dubai that was supposed to be only 2 hours, but we had a 2.5 hour delay in our flight. We tried to get into the airport lounge (fail) and so spent some time browsing all of the duty free shops instead. We arrived in Amman and were greeted by our driver Hamza and a company rep. From the start, we knew that the tour in Jordan was going to be more relaxed than the tour in India. For starters our vehicle was not a brand new SUV driven by a man in a formal uniform. Hamza was driving an early 2000’s Chevy sedan that smelled of smoke and Hamza was in jeans and a T-shirt. We checked into the hotel and were excited to continue the last leg of our trip in 5 star luxury.

The next morning we toured Amman & the countryside. Our first stop was Ajloun, an Islamic military castle that was used by the Islamic armies of Saladin to protect the region against the crusaders. Six meters of the upper level of the castle was destroyed by an Earthquake in the middle of the 700’s AD. The castle is on a peak of a mountain range overlooking the entire region. We didn’t have a guide at Ajloun, so we had to make up stories to tell each other about the purpose of each room; it sure was an interesting castle!!

Next, we went to Jerash, Pompeii of the East. We had an excellent and very distinguished guide here. We entered the ancient city through the monumental South Gate and spent nearly 2 hours wandering around this ancient Roman city. We started in the Oval Plaza, which is still surrounded by colonnades and then strolled along Jerash' main road the Cardo and passed by the remains of the Nymphaeum (an old water fountain fed by gravity). We also saw both of the two Roman theatres within the city walls. The acoustics in the main theater were amazing! Standing in the middle of the theater you can hear your voice amplified, even scuffling your feet can be heard throughout the theater.

After Jerash, Hamza took us for a traditional Jordanian feast. We had tabbula salad made of parsley and tomatoes, vegetable salad, GIANT freshly baked pita bread, lamb/chicken and beef scewers and lots of yogurt with garlic and dill. On the city tour we visited the Citadel, which are the ruins of another Roman city, and another larger 6000 seat Roman Theatre. Hamza had intended to show us a few more sites but we had already spent 9 hours visiting sites and were tired. Before we headed back to the hotel we stopped briefly at the King Hussein mosque, just to snap a few pictures from the car. About 3 minutes after we left the mosque, Hamza was pulled over by the secret police. Someone at the mosque had reported our activity as suspicious and the police were hot on our trail. After a quick interrogation with Hamza and a cursory inspection of our camera we were set free. It was a little unnerving to see how quickly the secret police responded to the call. The hotel had a gym so we enjoyed a quick work out and took full advantage of their wonderful mint-infused steam sauna.

The next day we were waiting for Hamza….again (he was late practically every day to pick us up) for our drive to Petra. Along the way we stopped at the small town of Madaba, famous for a unique mosaic map of the Holy Land, which is in Saint Geroge’s church floor. Then we visited Mount Nebo, which is supposedly where Moses looked over the Holy Land and the Dead Sea. This is (supposedly) where Moses was seen for the last time, and is considered to be his burial place. From the top of the mountain on a clear day, you can see Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. There was a slight wind and blowing sand, which partially obscured our views. From Mount Nebo, we drove to the Dead Sea! The Dead Sea lies on the western border of Jordan (Israel is on the other side) and it is the lowest spot on earth at 400 meters below sea level. The water is super-saturated with salt and other minerals. There is so much salt in the water, that the ‘sand’ along the shore is actually mostly salt crystals. When you get in the water, the change in temperature from your skin causes a thermal gradient and change of concentration in the salt. This creates a magical looking swirling of the water, just like heat waves on the highway. Due to the high salt content you become extraordinarily buoyant when you are in the water. You have to struggle to keep yourself under the water. You can float with ease on your stomach and on your back and it’s something that’s hard to describe in words. After our cold dip in the sea we were back on the road to our hotel in Hamza’s hometown of Petra, but not before another Bryan Colvin special. Hamza decided that he would take a shortcut through the back-roads. This shortcut took us through the mountains instead of along the very new and comfortable highway around the mountains. His shortcut was a one-lane road with sheer cliffs over 800 meters high… without any guardrails. The twists and the rolling road made it hard to see which way the road was turning and if there was any oncoming traffic or if the road continued at all. We survived the two hour ‘shortcut’ and live to tell about it.

permalink written by  ECRadventure on February 17, 2010 from Amman, Jordan
from the travel blog: ECRadventure's Travel Blog
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