Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thiruvananthapuram and Kovalam Beach.


I was awake well before 5:30a but there was no need to get up any earlier so I lingered in bed. The church, behind the house, started blaring out music at 5:30a on the dot. With the bedroom windows wide open, the sound of the music was especially loud - I felt like I as in the front row in a performance hall :-(


At 5:30a, I got out of bed and got ready for the day. By the time I made it downstairs, the rest of the family was already up as Smitha and her family had to also leave shortly after I would to head for the airport for their flight to Chennai.

It was too early for me to eat breakfast and besides, I was keen to get on the road. Smitha had told me that it would be a four hour ride to Kovalam so I wanted to get an early start so I would arrive with enough time to enjoy the day.

The driver had already arrived. Smitha followed me out and she took a few minutes to talk with the driver to make sure he knew where he was taking me and that he could speak a bit of English. Check and check so I was good to go.

Bless her heart, Smitha wanted to make sure she was leaving me in good hands; she said she felt like she was sending one of her kids off to school :-)

As I headed towards the car to get into the back seat, she handed me a piece of paper. On it was written the driver's name, Vinod, and his mobile number....just in case I needed to call him.

I got into the backseat and as we were about to drive away, I shouted, "Goodbye Mommy" to Smitha and in return, she shouted back "Goodbye Baby":-) I smiled as I settled back into my seat.

Our driver yesterday was an older gentleman and he drove like one. Vinod, I'm guessing, is in his late 20's/early 30's and he drives like a man that age with a bit of a lead foot. After three trips to India, I am now accustomed to the way they drive here so I was neither worried nor frightened by the way that Vinod wove in and out of his lane, passing slower vehicles one by one.

It had rained hard last night but today was shaping up to be a bright and sunny day. I was hoping it remain that way as it would be a real downer to be spending the time at the beach in rainy weather.

As with yesterday's roadtrip, our drive today took us past one small, nondescript town after another.

A short way down the road, I tapped Vinod on the shoulder, pointed to the radio and asked "music?". Vinod nodded and said "memory card" then asked "English?" to which I replied "okay" despite the fact that I really had no idea what Vinod was trying to ask me. He turned on the radio and cycled through the musical selections. When he stopped, the sounds of what I can only describe as a playlist of everything from rap to techno to pop music performed by the Black Eyed Peas, Usher, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias and the Backstreet Boys. Those were the artists I recognize though the music was for ears far younger than mine. I had no idea who the rap performers were though I think I did pick up Eminem on one of the tracks. The songs were all in English which solved the mystery of Vinod's question. I was tempted to ask him to play the Indian music playlist but I didn't want Vinod to think I was not happy with what he had picked out so I let the music play on as I watched the world whizzing by outside the car window.


A couple of hours into our ride and Vinod turned around and uttered a one word question, "breakfast?". I wasn't hungry but I wasn't going to say no in case poor Vinod needed food. Somewhere in the town of Changanacherry, Vinod pulled over into a small parking lot, right in front of a veg place called Hotel Aaryas. It me a while to figure it out but in this part of India, the word *hotel* often refers to restaurants and not rooming facilities as we know hotels to be.

I followed Vinod inside the restaurant and to the back where we washed our hands. Indians eat with their fingers so it's especially important for them for their hands to be clean.

We took our seats at a table and the waiter took our orders - idli and coffee for Vinod and masala dosai and bottled water for me. While we waited for our food to arrive, I took the opportunity to try and have a bit of conversation with Vinod. Knowing how little English he understood, I kept my questions to one or two words. It began with me asking, "wife?" Answer was "yes". Then, "children?" Answer was "no, marriage five months". Vinod was a newlywed :-)


Our brief conversation continued until our food arrived and then all talking stopped. The masala dosai was h-u-g-e and I knew I would not be able to finish all of it. I ate what I could which was barely half. Both our dishes also came with a vada each.....I gave mine to Vinod. It was a simple but satisfying meal and all for 91 rupee....about $1.65!

Back on the road we went. Except for the occasional pitstop at the gas station for Vinod to go to the toilet, it was a continous drive. I soon fell into daydreaming to pass the time. I also took on the challenge of pronouncing the name of the place we were heading to - Thiruvananthapuram. Formerly known as Trivandrum, it's the capital city of the state of Kerala. For some reason, I just could not repeat the name of the city until I broke it down - all seven syllables. Thi_ru_va_nan_tha_pur_am.

Seconds turned into minutes and minutes very quickly turned into hours. Before I knew it, we had arrived into Thiruvananthapuram. The mass of vehicles and chaotic traffic were reminders I was back in a city.

By what I would term as Indian standards, Thiruvananthapuram is a pretty city - broad tree lined avenues, beautiful beautiful buildings from a colonial era gone by as well as ......look up Trivandrum architecture.

Smitha had instructed Vinod to take me sightseeing and he's not a guide by training and I hadn't done any reading on this place so I wasn't expecting much.

We passed a large park like area, enclosed behind a metal fence. Looked nice. Vinod turned onto a small street just as we passed the entrance to the park. He found a parking spot and we both got out. I had absolutely no idea where I was or where I was going. I was in Vinod's hands.


I walked alongside Vinod as we headed to the park - the Thiruvananthapuram Museum & Zoo.  As I would soon find out, there were two museums, a zoo and an aquarium located on the park grounds. This was Thiruvananthapuram's version of Central Park.

We walked towards what we thought was the ticket booth and that turned out to be the entrance to the smaller (i.e., one room) museum. The woman sitting behind the counter pointed us in the direction of the larger museum. There, I bought a ticket, each for Vinod and I. Cheapest museum ticket I have ever bought - 5 rupee which at today's exchange rate is less than 10 cents each!

The Napier Museum was first established in 1855.  In 1874, the old Museum Building was demolished and foundation for the new building was laid. The new building was named after Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras from 1866-1872.

The building is in an architectural style that I've never seen before. It's beautiful in a folksy sort of way. Photography was not allowed inside which was too bad because the painted detail of the wooden ceiling was as uniquely charming as the building's exterior.

The museum's collection was all displayed on the ground floor which was laid out with a center square area from which fanned out four wide corridors. It was a small but interesting collection of items - ranging from small metal statues of Hindu gods to the actual wooden carriages that the Kings of Travancore were once upon a time transported around in.  On July 1, 1949, the Kingdom of Travancore merged with the princely state of Cochin to form the Indian state of Travancore-Cochin. Later Travancore-Cochin joined with the Malabar district of the Madras State (modern day Tamil Nadu), on November 1, 1956, to form the Indian state of Kerala.

I could have used my cell phone as an audio device to explain the various objects but I had no idea what that was going to cost me so I opted out. The collectibles were identified by name, year and region so that at least gave some idea of what I was looking at.

For some odd reason, the museum also has a small collection of artifacts from Indonesia.

It probably took Vinod and I all of 20 minutes to make our way through the entire museum.






Back outside, I took a few minutes to take photos of the building and then followed Vinod to our next destination. Our walk took us along a tree lined path. Vinod pointed out two monkeys sitting up on a tree limb. They were members of the zoo that we were heading towards.










At the ticket booth, I bought two tickets for each of us - one for entry into the zoo and the other to the aquarium.  I also had to buy a ticket so I could use my camera inside the zoo.
















We made our way inside the zoo and followed the prescribed This Way path.









We walked past the monkey enclosures.  Hard to spot them in the trees.  I can't imagine wearing a fur coat in this heat - they must have been sweating in their own way!

We continued on the This Way path.  It was a nice walk - not crowded, a bit shady.







Nothing I hadn't ever seen before that is until Vinod pointed out these large, black colored, plastic bag looking things hanging high up in the trees. One look at them through my zoom lens and I knew what they were - bats! I was fascinated by the bats but we had to move on.












Next creature was the alligator or was it a crocodile or a caiman??  I couldn't tell. It was feeding time and Vinod and I hung around for a few minutes to watch the zookeeper toss meat to the hungry creatures. He obviously had zero fear of them coming after him.

Back on the This Way path, we came upon a grove of trees that was home to more bats than I could count. There were sitting at a distance that was just about at the limit of my zoom lens and taking pictures of them against the bright sky was a challenge for me. I just wished they were hanging a lot lower down in the trees so I could watch them without having to use my lens.  They were just about the coolest creatures I have ever seen!

 
 After the bats came the hippos....
 










 ...and the deer who were also being fed.



















We took a few minutes to check out the pond; Vinod pointed out the fish.

There were birds and the reptile house. Ho hum.









We were headed toward the Big Cats.  Number 1 - Mr. Leopard.  Just lazing on a tree limb looking very relaxed.





We continued on the This Way path and headed towards the lions and tigers. It was feeding time for both. These magnificent creatures were tearing into huge chunks of meat and bone with ease. Scary. Even Vinod was captivated watching them feed; I saw him taking a video using his cell phone :-)

All this while, I had been lugging my heavy backpack and it was hot and humid and I had stupidly forgotten to bring along my bottle of water. I was in need of something to quench my thirst. It was all beginning to wear on me and I was ready to leave.

On the way out, we came upon a small refreshment stand - one side sold drinks and the other, ice cream. I gave Vinod the choice and he chose ice cream. I plunked down 30 rupee for two small cones of strawberry ice cream. It was just the right sized pick me up.


After we downed our ice cream, we did a quick walkthrough of the aquarium and the smaller museum, the Sree Chitra Enclave which is dedicated to the memory of Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma (1912 - 1991) the last Maharaja of Travancore. The enclave depicts the history of Travancore royal family and displays personal collectibles from the family. 

The woman who had earlier redirected us to the ticket counter earlier took our tickets and then asked for 2 rupee to hold our shoes. I didn't have any small change so Vinod pulled two coins from his pants pocket and plopped them on the table.

No photography allowed inside.  It was a one room museum containing artifacts from the Maharajahs of Travencore ....nothing really interesting so I was in and out in less than 5 minutes.

By now I was really, really ready to leave and gratefully, we had seen all there was to see in the park. I followed Vinod back to the car.

Shortly before we had arrived into Thiruvananthapuram, Vinod had pulled out a brochure for a backwater cruise and he asked "boating?".  I took the brochure from him and read it. Sounded ok. I replied back "tomorrow". After our visit to the park, Vinod once again asked me about the boating and I again replied, "tomorrow". He then asked "hotel?" and I replied, "yes".

As we drove through the city, Vinod attempted to point out sights to me but he missed out on what I would have considered to be the major landmarks; there were plenty of building colonial buildings but I had no idea what they were.

We then drove by one of the town's most famous heritage landmarks - the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. I asked "visit?" and Vinod reminded me that only Hindus are allowed inside. I then asked "photo?" and Vinod nodded. He found a parking spot and let me head out on my own to take the photos.


The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu is constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture. 

From afar, I couldn't make out the designs that were on the roof so I continued to walk towards it, wondering if at any moment, someone would have me turn around and walk away as I'm clearly not Hindu. No one stopped me so I kept walking, climbing the steps to the temple's entrance.

I wanted to get as close as possible to the building to take photos but got turned away by the policeman as I stood at the top of the steps. I did ask if I could take photos.

Its ornate topper, which I thought was a roof is actually an ornamental tower known as a gopuram, was added in the 16th century.   I backtracked and stood at what I thought was an acceptable distance away from the steps and aimed my camera at the gopuram.  It was only then that I could see the intricately carved detail of the ivory colored gopuram.   Just on the basis of the gopuram, I can see why this is a heritage treasure.


I made my way back to the car and we made our way to Kovalam Beach to the Leela Hotel.

Vinod turned off the main road onto a smaller side road and then turned into the entrance to the hotel grounds. The road wound its way through well manicured grounds sitting under the protection of dappled shade. We stopped briefly at the security check before being allowed to proceed to the hotel's front entrance.

Before I got out of the car, I confirmed with Vinod on when he would pick me up the next day. I knew that check out time was noon so I told him to come at 1 as that would give me some time to grab a bite of lunch, if I wanted to.

I waved Vinod goodbye and headed inside to check in. One thing about checking in to a 5 star hotel during low season is that there is no need to wait to get checked in. As with the Taj, I got the dab of bindhi (check spelling) as a welcome greeting, a shell necklace draped around my neck and a small glass of apple juice to quench my thirst as the receptionist was processing my paperwork.

As I waited, I wandered over to the Activities Board to see if there was any interesting on the agenda. Archery from 3-6pm. Hmmm.....that might be a possibility.

The bellhop then took my backpack from me and walked me to my room. We got in the elevator and went one floor down. All the rooms at the Leela are located below the lobby level.




He opened the door and I entered into my room.  Beautiful but it's the typical hotel room layout. The bathroom was quite something though. The sink was in an open alcove but the toilet and huge shower were located behind a heavy wooden door that had been painted turquoise green.





The bellhop then opened the glass doors to the terrace. Yes,the room came with a terrance and it was my own private terrace. From the terrace, I had a view of the Arabian Sea! Wow!

I quickly settled in and decided to head to the restaurant for a bite before it closed at 3p. The restaurant was located right next to the hotel's infinity pool. Kids were jumping in and out of the water having a wonderful time.

Lunch offerings were either buffet or a la carte. I surveyed the buffet offerings but I didn't think I could eat 990 rupee worth of food so I settled on picking something from the menu. I decided to take a break from Indian food and ordered a plate of fusilli with shrimp and squid in a tomato sauce. Yep, I opted for Italian :-)

After lunch, I decided I would check out the hotel's private beach. Although there is a golf cart that shuttles guests to and from the beach, I chose to walk - need to burn off some of the thousands of calories that I have consumed on this trip.

I found the patch leading down to the beach. There were several look out points, with benches for sitting to take in the view, located all along the upper section of the path. I took advantage of at least two different benches.

Despite the fact that the hotel is located seaside, there was barely any breeze blowing; it was extremely hot and humid. In no time, I was ready to head back indoors. I never made it to the beach.


I chilled out in my room; enjoying a cup of tea and catching up on my blogging.

By the time the dinner hour rolled around, I was still stuffed from lunch. With the sun long set, I thought it would be a cooler moment to take a walk and so I headed back out on the path. Other hotel guests had the same idea and all the benches that had been empty earlier in the afternoon were now filled. I stood and took in the view of the ocean waves but I didn't stay for long.


Back in the room, I took a shower and watched a bit of TV before calling it a night. For the past few days, I have ended each day with no idea what the next will hold for me and today was no different. What I do know is that it's okay to sometimes just do absolutely nothing as long as that's what makes you happy and I'm feeling very happy at the moment!