Friday, February 02, 2007

Christmas and New Years in New Zealand

December 2006
My life was pretty hectic for 2 weeks after returning from India as there was a lot of work to catch up on. But Ross and I took off a couple of days before Christmas for a camping and fly fishing trip. The weather has been pretty bad in Christchurch with endless clouds, rain and wind. So I went online and found out where they were predicting sun and off we went! We ended up at the Awatere River north of Kaikoura, where we spent 2 nights and I received fly fishing lessons from Ross. Ross caught a 12-inch trout that he said was too small to keep and I didn’t catch anything. Then we went to the Buller River where we spent Christmas on a sandy outcropping covered with rocks, sand and tree debris. The birds were awesome in the morning. Christmas dinner did not include trout unfortunately but I made pizza over my little Whisperlite stove plus soup and steamed pudding! Then we listened to Christmas carols on my I-Pod. Very different from previous Christmases but lots of fun.
On the way home, we spent the last night on the Hurunui River and the last morning Ross caught an 18-inch trout. We took it home and Ross cooked trout plus broccoli, new potatoes and carrots fresh from his vegetable garden. What a feast! W decided that sharing one fishing rod was a little boring so I went and bought myself a Christmas present of a fly-fishing rod and a fishing vest to put all my flies, tipit, clippers, reading glasses etc in. So now we’re really set for New Years weekend!
For New Years we went up Arthur’s Pass and hiked into Lake Marymere. It was raining and cold but not as cold as a couple of hundred feet up the mountain beside us where it was snowing! After about 5 casts with my new rod, I was freezing so I decided to reach into my pocket for my gloves and at that moment I got a big strike! I was only holding on with one hand and I didn’t think to jerk the rod up quickly enough and the fish took off with my fly and all of my tippit! I guess I have some lessons to learn in knot tying! I had added an extra little knot after doing the required knot that joined the leader to the tippit. So I left that knot off the next time! I managed to get 2 more strikes at that lake but never landed anything! The last night we were at Lake Poerua (sp?) on the west coast and I saw 2 fish jump about 3 feet into the air. Quite a sight! But I still didn’t catch anything. I was a little relieved that I didn’t to tell the truth as I would have had to deal with it if I had!
I did finally catch a rainbow trout the next weekend but it was too small to keep (minimum is 30 cm/12 inches). I caught another one the next day that was also too small but it swallowed my fly and I mortally wounded it trying to get it out so I kept it and we had it for lunch. It was yummy! I was impressed that I managed to do everything myself without freaking out. It was surprisingly easy to clean – a much less complicated intestinal tract than a human! My apologies to the vegetarians and the squeamish who may be reading this.

Visitors from California

December 2006

I’ve had my first visitors from North America! Deane and Kathy came to do the Milford Track and I saw them at the start and the end of their trip. They managed a minor miracle and only had one day with rain! I heard on the radio that this spring was the coldest spring on record in Wellington! And I bet Christchurch wasn’t far off. The west coast has been better though.

Here are some photos of us in my backyard. So come on over for a visit and you too can have your picture in my blog!

Houseboat trip on the Backwaters

December 2006
There are lots of little inlets from the ocean along the southern part of the Kerala coastline. We were told that the spits of land were man-made and on one side of them there were large rice paddies. Apparently during the rainy season, there is enough flow into these areas that the water is fresh and the rice can be grown. In the dry season it gets more salty.
We had an idyllic 20-hour houseboat ride through these backwaters from Alleppey. The boats are a range of sizes but ours was about 40-feet long (see photos). The walls and roof are made from woven palm fronds and they are quite striking. We had 3 staff (the driver, the cook and the boss) and we were treated like queens. We sat on the deck in big armchairs, sipping on coconuts full of coconut water. It was quite hot out so we felt very lazy and enjoyed just sitting there reading, playing cribbage and looking at the scenery. The food was unbelievable. Kerala cooking is really delicious with lots of coconut and bananas. The stores in Kerala sell 4 or 5 different types of banana. We bought 3 huge prawns from a fisherman after lunch and had them at dinner.
Our last few days we spent at a fairly touristy beach resort called Varkala, where we could actually put on a bathing suit and not feel self-conscious. We both had come down with colds by this time so it was good timing to be able to veg out for a couple of days. The food here was great too. We sat on top of a cliff and for the equivalent of about US$8 each would have a dinner of curried fish straight from the ocean and warm rice pudding flavoured with cardamom for dessert.
The fisherman at Varkala reminded me of how cheap labour must be in India. They would set out a large fishing net about a mile offshore using boats. Ropes would be attached to each end and brought to shore. About 20 men would pull on each rope for many hours until the net was brought in and the fish collected. We saw another interesting fishing method in Fort Cochin at the start of our vacation. There was a swift current along the shore there so a net was set up with each corner attached to a frame of logs. The center of the frame was attached to a rope and pulley setup with stones attached as a counter balance. When they were ready to pull in the net, the men pulled on the rope with the stones and the frame closed like an umbrella, collecting the fish in one small section of the net.

Western Ghat Mountains aka The Cardamom Hills

November 2006
Amy and I flew from Mumbai to Kochi in Kerala for our 2-week vacation. After a couple of days in Fort Cochin exploring the markets and swimming at a beach, we took a taxi to Munnar in the Western Ghat Mountains. We ended up using taxis a lot as they are really cheap by Western standards (US$40 for a 4-5 hour trip) and much nicer than being crammed into a train or bus. In Munnar we stayed at a small 4-room hotel at the top of a ridge. There was a cooking lesson each night before dinner and we did some great hiking through the surrounding tea and cardamom plantations. We took a 2-hour auto rickshaw ride the last day up to Top Station where there are supposed to be awesome views of the surrounding mountains and the Tamil Nadu plains to the east. It was completely fogged in when we got there unfortunately but then the heavens opened for about 10 minutes while we were at the lookout and we had some great views.
The women here seem to do most of the manual labour. Only women pick tea and only women cook the meals, take care of the kids and do the housekeeping apparently. Not an easy life! But they all look so beautiful with their dark hair and eyes and their beautiful saris.
We also spent a couple of days in Kumily, which is also in the mountains. We did a jungle safari in an elephant and tiger preserve but didn’t manage to see any elephants or tigers! We missed a group of elephants by about 5 minutes but we did hear a bison and we say Nilgiri monkeys and giant squirrels as well as lots of birds. The monkeys are big – maybe 4 ft tall not including their tail – and they sound just like the monkey noises we learn to make as kids! I suppose I should be happy that we didn’t see any tigers but I wasn’t too worried as our guide had seen a tiger 3 times during the 7 years he had been working there.
One highlight of our stay in Kumily was the lizard that ran into the little spice shop Amy and I were in one afternoon. They managed to catch it and the picture I took of it was in the local paper the next day!

Jamkhed, India

November 21-22, 2006
I splurged (300 rupees [US$8] instead of 150 rupees) and took the sleeper bus to Jamkhed (see photo) for view!. It took 8 hours and I arrived in the dark at about 6am. I was terrified I’d miss the stop as the driver didn’t speak English and all the highway signs are in Hindi. As we were getting close and I was peering frantically into the dark trying to see a roadsign that would mean something to me, I noticed that there were a lot of people squatting in front of lanterns on the side of the highway. I thought that they must be saying their morning prayers, although it did seem an odd place to do it. Well, Amy told me later that they were actually having their morning poop! There are lots of pigs roaming around and they take care of things (not sure where the pigs poop though!). Apparently it has been very difficult to get the rural population to use toilets even when they are given to them for free. Although, having used an Indian toilet on the way to Jamkhed, I wasn’t completely surprised. They are called squat toilets and they are just holes with treaded porcelain on either side for standing on without slipping. And TP is not provided. It gave me a deeper understanding of the right hand for eating, left hand for less clean activities!
The two highlights of visiting Jamkhed were making rounds in the hospital and having dinner with a local Muslim family. The hospital is quite small (40 beds I think) and set up ward style. The hospital does not provide food or bedding so family must come and provide this. There’s a courtyard that is used for the families to do the cooking. So rounds are quite interesting as you get to meet the patient and several family members. The patients were either post-partum, post-op or suffering from an infectious disease such as typhoid, hepatitis or HIV.
The Muslim family was celebrating Neem belatedly with Shobha, the doctor who runs the hospital and we were included. The family was fairly well off, at least for this poor rural part of India, and 3 generations lived under one roof – the “patriarch” and his wife, 3 of their 8 children and all the grandchildren. Only the older couple ate with us and everyone else helped serve and sat around and chatted – in Marathi so I didn’t contribute a lot to the conversation! We sat on the floor in the living room and a piece of cloth was used as our table. Someone came around with a pitcher of water and a bowl and we rinsed off our right hands as there were no utensils. We had chapattis, curried chicken and biryani. It was all delicious but it sure is hard to tear off pieces of chapatti with one hand! Dessert was a kind of custard followed by paan, which is a betel leaf containing I don’t know what and all wrapped in coloured paper. The first bite tasted OK but then it seemed kind of gross but I did manage to get it down without embarrassing myself!

Mumbai, India!

November 20, 2006
I went to India for 3 weeks to visit Amy. It was an awesome trip but I think I’ll just try to cover the highlights.
It took 48 hours to get from Christchurch to Jamkhed, which is 350 km east of Mumbai. But that included a 7-h sleep in a little travelers’ hotel in the Singapore airport and a 12-h stopover in Mumbai that included giving an impromptu lecture at a college in New Bombay! India was overwhelming from before I even landed. There is a huge slum in Mumbai that extends right up to the fence around the runways. I had heard about it and even seen photos of it, but seeing the real thing come in to view as we approached the runway was staggering. It extends for what seems like miles and it looks like one huge irregular black roof. I guess the roofing material people use extends over to cover the walkways so it’s just an endless expanse of roof. I was told that nearly half the population of Mumbai lives in the slums.
Shrilathi, one of Amy’s classmates from her course in Jamkhed lives in New Bombay, a suburb of Mumbai and she picked me up from the airport. We took a taxi to her apartment and that was quite an experience also. We drove past the slums and it appeared that there were open sewers that just ran into gutters along the road. Between the smells and the noise, I did not have to open my eyes to know that I wasn’t in New Zealand anymore!
Driving in India and in Mumbai in particular is quite an experience. There are 3 million taxis in Mumbai – an impressive number when I think about the fact that there are 4 million people in all of New Zealand! The good news is that all of the taxis have been converted from petrol to natural gas to help relieve the terrible air pollution there. In addition to cars, trucks, taxis and motorcycles on the roads, there are bullock carts and auto rickshaws. Auto rickshaws are little open-air 3-wheel vehicles that are pretty cheap so everyone takes them (see photo).
The first thing I noticed is the endless honking. At first it just seemed like utter chaos but after a while I realized that there was some method to the madness. Everyone is always wanting to pass because of the range of vehicles and animals on the road. When you pass, you honk to let everyone know. There seem to be little toots for fairly safe passing and longer, more urgent honks that seemed to say – there’s another car coming towards me and they’ll probably pull over onto the shoulder to let me by if I don’t make it but just in case they don’t can you please slow down and pull over a little so I can get past you without killing everyone in this vehicle?! The first few times it was a little hair-raising but eventually I got used to it and only one driver on the whole trip managed to bruise my shins when he freaked out and slammed on the brakes. Fortunately that happened on the last day of our trip so I didn’t have a heart attack! The other interesting thing about honking as that the trucks and buses have horns that play tunes. Rather entertaining except in the middle of the night on the sleeper bus to Mumbai when the driver honks the horn about every 5 minutes!
The two other driving things that were a little hard to get used to in Mumbai were 1) everyone ignores the white lines separating lanes of traffic so there would be 5 lanes of traffic when the road was marked for 3 and 2) if there isn’t traffic coming, no one even slows down for a red light.
Shri’s husband, Solomon, came home late morning and asked me if I’d be willing to talk to some of his students that afternoon as they would be interested in meeting a doctor from the US who does research. He teaches Science at a local college in New Bombay. I said OK, envisioning sitting down with 4 or 5 students for a little chat. Well, it turned out to mean giving a lecture for an hour to over 100 students! And that after traveling for over 24 hours! I was sure happy that I got that sleep in the Singapore airport! Somehow I survived and then Sweety (Shri and Solomon’s lovely 12 yo daughter) and I had tours of all the labs. It was actually quite fun in the end.


November 2006
Well it’s actually the end of January now but I’m going to try to get my blog up to date, just touching on the highlights.
I finally had my first surfing lesson from Ross. One day when I was over at Ross’ house (he lives right on the ocean) the surf was perfect ie not too high for a beginner but not so small that you’d freeze to death waiting for a wave. I put on my wetsuit and two bathing caps and headed over to the beach. Ross took a short board and I took a long one as they are supposed to be easier.
We walked, dove and then paddled out past the breaking surf and almost right away I caught a wave! I just stayed lying down the first time and made it most of the way into the beach. The next few waves I caught I managed to get up on my knees with my hips straight. It turned out not to be scary because you are in front of the wave you’re riding so you can’t see it coming down on you. That was a pleasant surprise. So the next wave I caught, I decided to try to stand up. Unfortunately my beginners luck didn’t continue and as soon as I stood up I fell off. It’s quite a whomp on the chest when that happens!

By that time the surf was bigger and it was really hard to get back out again. Ross and I traded boards then and I gave the short one a go. After several tries, I still hadn’t managed to even catch a wave much less get up on my knees. I was pretty tired by then so we called it a day. I’m sure looking forward to the next time. Maybe I’ll manage to stand up for a few seconds!