Elephants, tea plantations- no joke- this is the real Munar

Taxi rides are generally unremarkable- unless you're riding one 2,000 metres above sea level up a range of hills lined with lush tea plantations, sky-high trees, and dappled with bright bursts of flowers in full bloom. Oh, and scattered with larger-than-life elephants that ramble along the side of the road with their trainers.

The climb to the top of the Munar plantations was breath-taking: the green seemed to extend into eternity beyond the last hills, the fresh breeze tussling hair and bringing a smell of sweetness, the lush smell of fresh grass and leaves. The sun slowly rose from behind the foliage and set itself high into the clear blue sky, warming but not scorching.

It would be an understatement to say that this was a peaceful retreat from city life- heaven can't be described in such light terms.

What added to the magic was the colour of our guide's eyes: clear percing green/blue, set in a dark brown face. The contrast of colours was beautiful. Later in the day, my rickshaw driver looked me in the eyes with his pair of dazzling blue ones to quote me a price and I was once again in awe. 'Are you wearing contacts?" I shamelessly wanted to ask.
Back to aforementioned tour...

We were shown 6 hours of dizzying tea plantations, dazzling views, darling shops, and daring drops. At one of the look-out points, I sat on a rock for what seemed like hours. I gazed out onto the deep valley so far below and meditated on everything from finding inner peace to what I was going to eat for dinner (it turned out to be Chinese vegetable noodles and a "jumbo" sundae. Misleading description.) After climbing the 50 wide-spaced steps to the top of the trail, and finding my breath, we continued to more excitement.

But nothing could be more exciting than the day's previous activities. Mainly, this included riding a horse and an elephant. No, not at the same time! First a 10 minute jaunt down a reservoir-bordering path, riddled with brambles and flora. Then another 10 minutes atop the massive grey wrinkled back of Mina. These were only about 15 minutes apart, so I guess I was close to riding them at the same time?! Circus tricks, indeed.

Being atop a creature of that size gave me an entirely new appreciation for this earth and my role in it. I mainly thought of how insignificant we are as humans. And not in a cynical way. Look at the size of an elephant compared to any human! Puney, in comparison. I was lucky to see how magnificent and beautiful and gentle these animals are, which is more than many people can claim for themselves. All throughout the ride, I was feeling this elephant move beneath me and realized my love for animals all over again. A being like that should never be intentionally killed, and yet hunting and sawing off tusks is perpetuated in India and Africa.

After stocking up on masala tea, home-made chocolate, and an out-of-place "NY" hat (to rally the heat off my heat-stroke prone head) it was down hill and back to our amazingly cheap yet clean and quaint hotel for a rest-up.

Tomorrow is a new day, occupied with travelling back to the Flat, our home away from home. And believe me, rest is a must if planning to catch the train anywhere in India.


Pondicherry *time to catch up on blogging*

Pondicherry is an ideal escape for the weekend if residing in Madras. When you think of a major city in Canada (like Toronto), you think traffic jams, people, some pollution, but you never question that the streets run straight and intersect at right angles. Well it's not like that in the majority of India! If roads are available, they criss-cross, flow, and cut into each other whenever they please- and the driver has to pay dearly in the confusion. Mainly with frustration and sometimes with accidents. Then again, many cities in the world follow a similar organic lay-out, like London for example.

Having lived in Canada for the majority of my life, I'm not used to the winding streets and get confused when in an Indian rick-shaw. Like, seriously confused. I'd be 3 km from the Flat and could very well be in Delhi for all the direction I remember!

It always makes for an interesting ride, as new discoveries are made daily; "ooh- is that a Fabindia? Look at that Indian sweets store- it's huge! We have to come back down this way!" A futile questioning of the driver takes place in which you learn that you are, indeed, in Chennai and, more specifically, in Egmore...and that's usually as far as it goes. Nonetheless, it of course adds to the experience of traveling outside of your own country.

I fell in love with Pondicherry straight away. The streets, for the most part, ran straight so I once again began to feel confident in my sense of direction. I managed to find a few places on my own after visiting them only once or twice. Does this mean that your mind just gets used to the layout of your home country/ city and has trouble configuring to a new one? It seems so.

The food in is a mixture of Indian staples and French cuisine because it used to be a French colony. Indian food is savory, but the spices can irritate any traveller's stomach if consumed daily in vast amounts. So it was interesting to have the option of a break ordering whole fish (in hollandaise sauce), mashed potato, a grilled cheese sandwich, or a pizza. Bland food in comparison to South Indian favorites, but food that my body can process without complaint. So far, though, not too many health crises.

There is a private beach accessed only by ferry (which, by the way, runs on a tiny engine meant for a much smaller fishing boat) where I was able to swim in the ocean for the first time since Cuba, which lifted my spirits and managed to curl my hair. There was a mix of families, travelers, and the ubiquitous groups of men.

One suggestion for female travelers in India- stay fully clothed the entire time at the beach. My friends tried to suntan in their bikini tops and full-length pants or skirts and men here gravitated towards them like moths to the light. Groups or single men will revolve around foreign women lounging on the sand, taking photos, crowding uncomfortably around them, and rudely staring. All women staying in India and attempting to act in some manner or form as they would back home in the West always leave with a disturbing story or two.

Here's my horror story:
I went into the water with a full length skirt and a tank-top; safe and pretty covered for 40 degrees plus humidity, right? I was followed in by a man. I thought it was annoying, but safe because I was going out towards two of my friends. The suck and pull of the tide managed to yank my improvised sarong skirt straight off. I was butt- naked in the water with no other choice of wardrobe. I hastily attempted to re-wrap the now clingy and twisted up piece of fabric around my waist, but it was all in vain. In between trying to swim, stay in the water deep enough to not let the entire shore see my wardrobe malfunction, and gasping for air, it was impossible to do anything. I needed shorts, pronto. One of my Flat mates saw my turmoil and adapted a lifeguard maneuver, grabbing me from the back and swimming for both of us. Another friend ran ashore to grab shorts as I bobbed like a cork in the ocean. "You mooned me when you had your back to me," my knight in shining armor laughs. "You're lying," I rebuke. "Nope," he laughs, "full mooning". I can't even turn around to smack him because he's the reason I'm safe in this water. Oh, my pride.

Sliding the shorts on presented yet another challenge- how is this done when sea-water is distorting my vision and I'm focusing all energy on staying afloat and not drowning Paddy the Lifeguard? This three-person effort led to an entire crowd of Indian men following their friend's brilliant idea and jumping into the ocean to frolic and shout around my vicinity. After a few moments' struggle, however, the shorts were on and my moment of embarrassment was over, save for the first male follower who decided to saddle up to us and shout random words in jumbled English to get our attention. You got my attention a while ago when you shadowed me for 10 minutes, bainchod.

The sun began its descent and it was time to head back on the ferry; five Brits, one Canadian, and a soccer ball. Landing ashore, we unchained our bicycles and peddled the 4 kms back to our beach-side guest house, passing brightly painted trucks, lethargic dogs, coconut vendors, pottery shacks, blue slivers of ocean views, and slum houses on the way.


Surreal India

I can now safely say that I have had one of the most surreal experiences of my life: I watched Rambo 4 in a cinema in Chennai, India. Amongst hundreds of screaming and cheering fans, I sat huddled at the edge of my Laz-e-boy recliner with Freddy, a Brit as enthusiastic about needless violence and a shitty dialogue in films as myself. We rolled up newspaper into headbands and donned them like the warrior that is Rambo.

But first thing's first. We were encouraged to stand at full attention as the Indian national anthem rose in power to greet us. And what a moving anthem it was, even though we couldn't understand the Hindi. The song even came with moving pictures of the Indian flag blowing at full mast and a man singing in the studio, who was one of the most renowned singers in India, as I would later learn. Sitting down, the lights dimmed further and we were enrobed in the beginning of Rambo 4.
The opening sequence saw much bloodshed and tears; the cinema remained quiet and unmoved. Ten minutes in, Rambo made his appearance capturing a writhing poisonous cobra in the amazon. The crowd went wild. Insane. For two solid minutes, the riotous crowd cheered, hooted and screamed. I couldn't help but join in the revelry. It's a natural reaction when seeing a film that infuses you with energy and excitement. There were explosions, much killing of bad guys, and the use of more graphic weapons, such as a machete and a bow and arrow. This ensured more extended death scenes, which moved the crowd even more. Men (the theater was 98% full of this testosterone fuelled sex) stood up to cheer on the bulging hero.

Speaking of bulge, I'm not too sure whether it was muscle, chemicals, or fat that clung to Sylvester's body. In many scenes, all I could focus on besides the dead dialogue and splashing blood, was Rambo's paunch and botoxed skin.

During the intermission, I managed to sneak to the loo. And what a washroom: marble floors and sinks, glass doors to the toilets, and full length mirrors, all pristinely clean. I have only ever seen tastefully designed washrooms like this at classy hotels, and I got the 5-star treatment with just my 100-rupee ticket, which is about 3 dollars Canadian. In the main lobby, the line for fuel, in the form of popcorn, red bull, coffee, and donuts, stretched and converged for meters. I couldn't be bothered- it was back into the noisy theatre for me and the obnoxiously loud jewelry commercials blaring from the screen. I have been to Sathyam cinema so many times that I finally managed to correctly mime the commercials, and even understand some of the dialogue.

Nonetheless, it made for good conversation as my English friend and I commented on everything in the film, from the lack of rivoting lines to the bad acting and cheesy stunts (I highly doubt that it was Sylvester rolling out of that truck at full speed). The unnecessarily long credit list (have you ever in your life seen "salad maker" or "chief fruit picker" in the credits?) made us roll with laughter.

Emerging into the still late night was surreal. After all the shouting, shoving, play fighting and cheering in the cinema, we were greeted with a cool breeze and a wall of impenetrable rickshaw drivers. We had to remember our senses as Freddie negotiated our rate home, and then we were off: fighting, smoking, growling, and punching all the way home. And I have the photos to prove it!


Valentines in the City

Toronto, Canada, is an eclectic, bustling city full of life and inspiration.
Never is this more evident than on holidays and during festivals when everyone celebrates together. Case in point is on February 14th, or Valentine's Day.
Queen West, the art-fashion bohemian mecca, is filled with ideas for decorating and dressing your best on this day. The store-fronts bloom with reds, pinks and various shades of white for the romantic passer-by. The main entertainment district on Richmond Street pumps music into the night crowd that gathers to mingle and party. The splayed out plazas get in on the love with V-day contests and sales. Events are advertised all over the city on flyers and through word of mouth; fashion shows, special dj sets, and parties are all put on in the name of Valentines Day. Kensington Market is awash with international flavor; the street vendors display only the most festive vintage imports. The organic food shops serve up delectable heart- shaped cupcakes, tarts, and pies.If you're looking for something to do with your sweety, you have to act quickly because dinner reservations fill up weeks ahead. There is no end to the romantic choices available. A walk through the historic University of Toronto Campus and the near by park, art gallery hopping, baking your own cake at Pie in the Sky Bakery, and selecting the perfect bouquet at one of many florist shops in the city are all on the menu.For the single guy and gal, parties, spa treatments and special "singles night" events add fun to this day.
Many people in the city even reject Valentine's day as a holiday worth celebrating. But this set usually have "anti- Valentine" events to rock out at.
Nevertheless, Toronto remains one of the most interesting places to be on February 14th.

Valentine's Day Blues...Not

February the 14th is supposed to be a day for couples, the one day of each year delegated to showing your love for the significant other in your life. One day. Even the concept of this Hallmark holiday is a little off; I say that there are ways to show affection every day of the year, why relinquish it to a mere 24 hours?
Oh, and there is the fact that not every person on this earth is in a relationship- in fact, most aren't. So when magazines comes out with V-day ideas for you and your hunny, what is a single gal to do- sulk, hide from your happily coupled pals, and eventually finish off a pint of Ben & Jerry's on your own? No. I won't stand for it and your sure won't, either. In lieu of the "romantic twosome" ideas spilling from the newstands during the next week, here is a list of things only a single girl can do on V-day- that's right, sometimes it only takes one.
1) Scam on cuties:
Ok, so this one is self-evident. But isn't it truly a relief when you see a fine man to admire without feeling guilty? Hell, let's go one step further, maybe you can even talk to said man! The city is a playground for guy-watching. Cafes, restaurants, movie theatres...even libraries are breeding grounds for this sport. It's pure fun and adrenaline to have a girls night at a club or bar and feel free to do whatever you please because there isn't an anxious and nearly jealous man reeling in the background.
2) Journey as you please:
Hm...I think I want to go to India in 6 months. No problem, right? For the single girl, no, but for the coupled one, the answer is a big fat yes. Imagine what things must be kept in consideration because of him: what about us? Are you breaking up with me? How long will you be gone for? Why can't I come? These are endless and tiresome. Most of all, they make one feel less independent and more constrained. Most of the time, there are no answers to these questions, since travel doesn't follow an itinerary when on the road solo.
True, you could bring Mr. hubby on the trip with you, but do you really want to spend every waking second in very close quarters with the man who is supposed to find you sexy, and vice versa? No chance of that when you see grooming habits, hear snoring...the list can go on for ages. Independent travel with no qualms on the home front is best.
3) Perks at your disposal:
Picture this; you're on your own at the movie store with a d.v.d. in hand. Three heavily- laden men stand between you and your movie watching. What's a cute single gal to do? Cutesy it up, of course, and ask the lads if they "wouldn't mind if I just buy this movie and rush home because my puppy needs a walk." Add in a hair twirl and lip bite for effect. In general, men love single girls. I mean, that's just how it is in most situations where you can use that charm. Ask and you shall receive.
4) Love and pamper yourself:
Think about it, if there is no guy to take up your time, all of the attention can go to yourself, your friends and family. Your life can follow your own direction, rather than having to keep one other person in consideration all the time. It's a "me", rather than "us", thing, and that's empowering.