Friday, February 27, 2009

Kerala - A tiny taste of southern India

It has become very clear to me that if I wanted to begin to really feel I had "seen" India, I would need at least 5 months here. Unfortunately, I have only one month. So I have cherry-picked a few places to see in that time, trying to get a little flavor of the south, which I hear is very different from the north, but still hitting a few of the northern must-sees.

So I spent the last week in Kerala province, which is the southernmost province on the western side of India, stretching almost down to the tip of the country. Because the country is so vast, I could not possibly generalize about it after one week, but I will generalize about Kerala. After many warnings about what I should expect here, I could hardly believe how easy the traveling is. Compared to some other places - the closest comparison I have from my own experience in terms of culture and level of development is perhaps China - the people are incredibly friendly, the harassment factor is low (though definitely still present), the mood is laid back, and most of all, there seems to be a sense of respect among the people here. Maybe it goes back to so many religions coexisting in one place, or perhaps it's because the main religions include Buddhism and Jainism, which are both quite peaceful and respectful religions, but there seems to be a general regard not just for other human beings but also for animals, which is really refreshing.

So I can definitely see why India is a backpacker paradise. Not only is it super cheap, but as a woman traveling alone, I felt particularly safe in Kerala. Women here look out for each other. We have separate seats on buses, and separate carriages on sleeper trains. Men will give up a seat to let women sit together, and sometimes there are even separate queues for women. Some people might look at that as old-fashioned, but for me it's great, because it reduces the grope factor, and even better, the worry factor.

As for the food, it redefines "spicy" for me. Not spicy in that it burns your mouth, since really it hasn't been particularly hot so far. However, I have never felt such intense and varied flavors before, even in the Indian food I have had at home. And talk about a vegetarian's paradise! If you think vegetarian food = rabbit food, I would suggest coming to India to get re-educated.

So as for what makes Kerala worth a stop, mainly it's beaches that are the main tourist draw, plus yoga and ayurvedic medicine and massages. There is a huge network of backwaters that you can cruise on, and up in the hills is one of India's biggest tea growing regions. In fact, the visit to the tea plantations of Munnar was probably the highlight of the week, although relaxing on a gorgeous beach after being massaged with hot herbs (that admittedly smelled a bit like dinner) was not so bad either. The coastal portions of the region are rather over-touristed (mainly, it seems, by French and Germans), but I was amazed how even in those places the locals have been generally friendly, and once you get inland a bit, they are some of the most welcoming people I've met.

In a few hours I fly to Mumbai, the end of my tour of southern India. I am sad to have my time in the south cut short, and I know I have missed many, many highlights. If there is one thing I know for sure after this week, it is that I will one day be back to see them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Foodie Tour of Alsace - Munster Valley

The foodie tourism continues this week with a visit to the Munster Valley, in the Alsace region of France. This region is famous for wine - primarily Riesling and Gewurztraminer - which makes sense, given that Alsace is on the German border. In fact, the dialect spoken there is a variant of German, rather than French. The wines, however, in my opinion are far superior to their German counterparts. We stopped by the Schoenheitz Winery, who claim that their wines are different because their grapes are grown at the highest in altitude of any in the region, and sampled several excellent wines.

You may have guessed that the other famous local product from the Munster Valley is Munster cheese. Let's get one thing straight - the "munster" that we grow up on in the U.S. is not the same thing as an AOC munster from Alsace. Where ours is tasteless and rubbery, with food coloring giving it that typical red rind, real munster cheese is one of the stinkiest, strongest-tasting cheeses around. It has a smell that knocks you over. Real munster is made on a small farm from unpasteurized milk, and it is washed three times a week with a cloth that previously washed an older munster, thus passing down from generation to generation the bacteria that make the cheese so delicious. We stayed in a farmhouse that we highly recommend, Chez Chantal et Dany, and visited their dairy in the morning.

Dany told us of the many woes of the modern cheese farmer in France, mainly that European regulations are strangling traditional cheese production and encouraging cheese to become industrialized. If you know anything about cheese, you know that when it comes from a factory, the taste can't begin to compare with cheese from a small producer. And to see the work and love and tradition that goes into making these cheeses, it felt tragic to hear Dany talk about how his children would most likely not be able to continue his work. So I encourage everyone to visit these places and support the small farmers - maybe France is too far away, but this is a problem everywhere now.

Anyway, we did a little tour of the lovely small villages in the area, full of colorful, old half-timbered houses, and lots of French countryside atmosphere. Randomly, the artist who designed the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Bartholdi, came from Colmar, one of the towns we visited, so there was a mini-Statue of Liberty outside the town. I think our favorite town was Riquewihr, but for food you can't beat Strasbourg (also home of the European Parliament). We had an amazing meal at La Cloche a Fromage, home of the biggest cheese cloche (the big glass bell they put over cheese) in the world - they are actually in the Guiness Book! Walking in the door, the smell of cheese hits you in the face, and they have a cheese expert there who ages the cheeses herself and picks the ones that are at the height of their maturity for you to try. The only one on the plate we couldn't stomach was the Epoisse, which was too strong even for me.

We also tried a local "winstub", a traditional Alsatian restaurant, and though they made me a terrific dish of munster melted on potatoes and onions, we had to suffer through everyone around us ordering the local specialty - tete de veau (calf's head). They don't bring it whole, but the brain is clearly visible on the plate, which is not very appetizing to be sitting next to! Well, it was a "cultural experience"...

So, now that I have had my fill of wine and cheese, I head off to India tomorrow, where the cuisine (and everything else) should be drastically different. I'll keep you posted...

Adventure map for 2009...