An archive of stories and photos from our family trip to South India.

Location: Seattle



February 12, 2006
This is an archive blog of stories and photos from our family trip to South India from Jan 14 to Feb 7, 2006.

For ease of reading, the entries are presented here in the reverse order of how they would usually be found in a blog, with the trip beginning in the first post below, and ending in the last. The dates inserted by the program above each post are irrelevant. There are a lot of photos, so if you are on a slow connection the whole trip may take a while to load, it is about 3 MB total.

Also for some reason the blog appears as unreadable dark print on a dark background sometimes. We think this is an Explorer for the Mac issue, if it happens try another browser.

Enjoy! The Furtwangler Family: Tom, Lyanda and Claire (7)


Chennai via London

And so we begin our India adventure... After an overnight flight from San Francisco we stopped briefly in London, and took advantage of an 18 hour layover to take the Tube into town and made a beeline for the British Museum, and specifically for the mummies! We spent a wonderful couple of hours looking through rooms and rooms of mummies, sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?), old papyrus scrolls, statues, and related cool stuff dating back to 3000-4000 BC... then on into the room of REALLY old artifacts, from before mummification, before hieroglyphics, little amulets and tools dating back tens of thousands of years. It takes the breath away, to think about these things (or, in a few too many cases, these *people* - the Museum seems to have a penchant for skulls and bones) living so long ago.

Back out via the Tube to our hotel (and a quick plug for which found us a 4 star hotel at Heathrow for $90), where we enjoyed a fitful night of tossing and turning and feeling curiously awake at 3 AM, between crisp cool sheets, before heading off at 6 AM to catch the Chennai flight.

Nine hours of British Airways World Traveller Plus comfort later, we touched down in Chennai and were promptly treated to organization, Indian style, as we sat in the plane, stopped on the tarmac, for 35 minutes waiting for a gate to open up. Onward through immigration, half an hour of nervousness about whether our bags had actually made it (they were among the very last bags, of course) and into the sticky Indian night, under a full moon, where our driver Mr. Mani was patiently waiting with a sign and a smile, to drive through empty streets us to our friends Izumi, Britt and Kaia's apartment, where we let ourselves in and crashed at 4 AM.

And what an apartment! We could hear the ocean last night but did not realize till this morning that they have a 4th floor panorama of the beach and sea, the omnipresent sound of waves crashing, and a cool breeze. Truly a remarkable spot to wake up on our first morning, with a cup of Chai tea enjoyed overlooking the fishermen heading into the waves.

That's the report. Our India activities to date include changing money, a little fabric shopping, lunch on the rooftop of a luxury hotel overlooking the city, and a long mid-afternoon nap. It's bound to get more exciting from here, and we'll keep you posted!

Claire on London

We are having a great time traveling. On the plane I watched Brother Bear. It was a long ride but now we are here! At the museum my favorite was the mummified cat. India is fun. From where we are staying we can see the beach. There are lots of people playing games and it's sunset. It is very hot and sticky. Love Claire.

Photos: London

Photo: The View from the Apartment



We're spending four days in Mahabalipuram, just down the coast from Chennai, to reset our body clocks to India Standard Time. This little town has served us well, a perfect place to alternate swimming in the Sea Breeze Hotel pool with taking little walks down the street to poke in the handicraft shops and bargain for earrings and trinkets of various kinds.

Mornings we walk the beach and admire the 1400 year old carved stone temple silhouetted at the end of the beach, and fishing boats coming and going. Today we found a dead turtle washed up, and we have been collecting some fabulous shells.

Just up the road there is a very large ancient temple complex, and we spent a whole morning exploring it. A whole complex, with rooms and friezes carved right into the rocks and ornately decorated with Hindu gods. From the top you have a broad panoramic view of the entire region, and when you reach the end of the complex you are at Krishna's Butterball, a large boulder perched on the hill in a seemingly gravity-defying way.

Photo: Krishna's Butterball

Claire on Mahabalipuram

I love the pool at our hotel!! I go swimming every day and I practice my dives with my dad.

It's funny, but even though I'm in India, I've been eating pasta and pizza most days. I also eat lots of bananas, but they are different from the bananas in Seattle, because they are small. We buy them and some other things from a lady that stands on the side of the street with her child.

Here are some things that are different about India:
At night I have to sleep under a mosquito net because there are so many mosquitos. And it's fun to be under it.

There are naked children running around the street, and some of them are very poor.

There are cows with painted horns walking down the street, and there are a ton of them walking at the beach.

When I take a bath, I take it with a big bucket. I pour a cup of water over me. But we don't drink the water from the faucets, because it's dirty and could make us sick. The only water we can drink is bottled water, and we buy that at the side of the street too.

I miss everybody, and I hope you're having fun at home! LOTS OF LOVE CLAIRE

Photos: Mahabalipuram

The Crocodile Bank

Yesterday we took a late-afternoon break from our "extra-chill pool day" to go by taxi to the Crocodile Bank. Founded in 1976 to help preserve the three species of Indian crocodiles, the place has grown to an overwhelming profusion of crocs, hundreds of them, 14 species, in large naturalistic enclosures behind low stone walls.

It was late afternoon, sun filtering through the trees, and Indian families strolling around taking it all in as we were. We were stopped several times, as usual, so that people could take pictures with us, or so that Tom could take their picture posed with Claire. In one case a very giggly group of girls crowded around Claire and hoisted her up, insisting we snap their picture. This has all become par for the course and Claire is pretty un-fazed by it all.

Also at the Croc Bank we visited the area where they take venom from four species of local poisonous snakes (including Cobras and the uber-deadly Crake), to make anti-venom. In a long dark shed several men tended hundreds of clay pots, each of which was covered with a cloth and held a snake. During the demonstration they explained about the snakes and how fast you would die after being bitten by each (Cobra = 6 hours, Crake = 2 hours). Then they used long stick with hooks on the ends to fish snakes out of the pots, carry them over to a table, and milk them for venom by having them bite into a jar covered with a thin rubber lid.

Photos: Crocodile Bank


Andimadam and R.E.A.D

On Thursday our driver Mr. Mani collected us from Mahabalipuram as arranged, in his large Toyota SUV, and we set off for the 4 hour drive over terribly rough roads to Andimadam, in rural Peramabalur district, far off the tourist trail.

How to succinctly describe our three days in Andimadam? A small agricultural town, surrounded by sugarcane fields and rice paddies, we came by invitation from Rural Education Action and Development (READ), a large local nonprofit run by our friend Mr. Selvam. READ has just completed a four room guest house with support from the U.S. nonprofit Sahaya (, where Tom is a board member, and we were to be among the first guests, joining three other Sahaya board members who had arrived a few days before, and were staying three weeks.

The guest house is more of a guest palace by local standards, with large gracious rooms designed to catch the breeze, tasty voluminous south Indian meals cooked three times a day and served family style, and sweet local children peering in through the windows, waving at Claire and asking the question Indian children eternally ask of strangers: "What is your good name?"

Photos: Guest House & Environs

Visiting R.E.A.D.'s Projects

From our base at the "Sahaya Illam" guest house, we explored the surroundings - visiting three schools that READ manages, as well as a women's group, an evening educational street theatre show in a village, and a sewing workshop. Claire particularly enjoyed an hour on the playground with kids her own age at the first school we visited.

Photos: READ schools

Photos: Tooth Pals

We met this girl who is the same age as Claire and is missing the same teeth!

The Engagement Party

By total chance, we happened to be in town to attend Mr Selvam's engagement party - the party at which, after much Hindu ceremony, he was introduced to his bride-to-be for the first time (and for the last time until the wedding in two weeks!).

Photos: The Engagement!

The engagement party! The Hindu priest first sets the time and date for the wedding according to astrology, then ceremonially settles the agreement between the two fathers, and finally the bride and groom, together on the altar for the first time, garlands and blessings and gifts, and then upstairs for a south Indian thali meal (served on a banana leaf and eaten with the right hand!)

Claire: Henna Hands

On the 21st my friend Sumathi did my hands in henna. She loves me. I LOVE HENNA! And we had an engagement party and saw a very big temple. And my friend Vignesh came and we visited 3 schools. I liked the first one the best. And the engagement party was so fun but I fell asleep on the way home. Love Claire.

Photo: Henna Hands


On to Trichy

After saying our sad goodbyes to all our new friends in Andimadam, we ventured forth on a four hour drive to Trichy, a relatively large city with two famous, ancient temples. We have kept the same driver throughout this part of our journey, Mr. Mani, and today we were glad to have him, and his large Toyota SUV.

It is impossible to describe the state of the roads between Andimadum and Trichy--after the monsoons of November and December, they are shockingly awful. Mr. Mani maneuvers us through the extreme potholes, cows, goats, pigs, monkeys, dogs, motorcycles, rickshaws, oxcarts, manic bus drivers, people bathing, people carrying stones on their heads, people drying their straw in the road, people threshing their grain in the road, people pooping in the road... There is no shortage of things to see out the window and to distract us from the bumpiness of the ride.

Some friends recommended a Trichy hotel to us, and it was a shocker after the village--a rather sterile business style hotel, with a pool, a restaurant called the "Cup-n-Saucer," and actual hot running water, which sort of works. Tom and Claire are down in the pool now, 8:45 a.m.

"Lourdes" and Rock Fort Temple

After freshening up here yesterday afternoon, we visited a couple of the famous Trichy sights. The first was a supposed re-creation of the church at Lourdes, France, but we had a hard time imagining that the the real Lourdes is painted hot pink inside, with brightly colored plastic statues of various saints in every corner. There are no pews in many Indian churches, everyone sits on the floor. (Lyanda attended mass in the village yesterday, Father Awaraswami presiding barefoot in an outdoor, thatched roof space with an alter. Everyone sat on the ground, right in the sand. Lovely singing--everyone sings...)

Then on to the Rock Fort Temple, a 435 step climb to a temple honoring Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of good fortune, and sweeping views of the city. We made the climb in the late afternoon, with gorgeous light and cooler temperatures. Really wonderful. We were waived into the dark temple, in spite of the fact that it is supposed to be for Hindus only (Claire charmed the gatekeeper with her bindi and flowered hair), and received a blessing from the temple priest--a wave of sacred flame, and a stripe of white powder on our forheads. Back at the base of the steps, Claire also received a blessing from the temple elephant, a beautiful, colorfully painted girl (I think she's a girl), who is much too intelligent to be chained to a temple (but who, as Tom pointed out, maybe has no less freedom than the temple priest, who may also be fulfilling a family obligation...). The elephant held out her trunk for an offering, Claire dropped a coin in its coiled tip, the elephant blessed Claire by touching her head with her trunk, then she dropped the coin into her keeper's hand. Of course, Claire kept asking for more coins!

Claire continues to be an awesome, cheerful, uncomplaining traveler, making herself at home in each new place, making friends, and taking the various inconveniences of India in stride.

Photos: Lourdes and Temple

"Lourdes" is just plain weird, but the Rock Fort Temple is impressive, towering up in the center of otherwise flat Trichy, providing a sweeping view on all four sides. But someone wanted to hurry back down the stairs and see her friend the elephant again...

Claire: Elephant Slobber!

In Trichy we went to the Rock Fort Temple and there's a temple elephant and I got blessed by it twice and now I have elephant slobber on me! In the morning me and my dad had a morning swim and it was really cold. There at the pool was a praying mantis, spotted beetle, cricket, and most of all, lots and lots of frogs. They were teeny tiny and hide on the side of the pool. And the man fishes them out with a net! Love Claire.

Photo: Elephant Slobber



We've just spent two days in the cool hilltop eucalyptus forests of the "Hill Station" of Kodaikanal. Founded by American missionaries to escape the heat of the plains, Kodaikanal is a beautiful forested place town at the literally breath-taking altitude of 2100 meters, with the smell of eucalyptus in the air, and stellar views in all directions.

We sped across the plain from Trichy toward Kodai in our Toyota Qualis with the ever-attentive Mr. Mani at the wheel, and then spent two hours winding up the hills, including a hilarious stop at a small roadside refreshment stand where we stopped to stretch our legs and admire the monkeys. As we stood there peering at them, a huge bus pulled up behind us, fresh off the hairpin turns, and several men and boys stumbled off and started retching around us, somewhat spoiling the moment, but providing yet another cherished memory...

Steps from our sweet little hotel in Kodai was Coaker's Walk, a half-mile path that circles the hilltop, providing an awesome panorama of the valley. During a very pleasant day and a half we enjoyed walks in the woods, wandered the little town, and Claire was astounded by the number of monkeys we saw along the roads, trails and even streets. At night (after Tom wrestled with the maddeningly slow internet cafes) we curled up under blankets, with a hot water bottle, and enjoyed the novelty of being chilly in India.

Photos: Kodaikanal

Claire: Family-Sized Dosas

When we were in Kodiakanal we went to one restaurant where we tried to order a "family-sized dosa." A dosa is like a very thin pancake that comes rolled in a tube, with three sauces - one coconut, one mint, and one curry to eat with it. But they told us that the "big dosa master" was not there only the "small master." The next day we went to a different restaurant and they had it on the menu. And when we ordered it they made us move to a bigger table because it was going to be so big. Then when we got the dosa it was about as long as me!! We almost finished the whole thing - it was delicious!!

Also we went to places to look out over the hills and we saw a girl monkey and this lady gave me some candy and the monkey climbed up the wall and grabbed the candy right out of my hand!! It was funny.

Photos: Dosas

Photo: Monkey

The Road to Kerala

Now we have wound our way down through hours of stomach-churning one-lane switchbacks (masterfully maneuvered by our wonderful driver Mr. Mani) and come west along the bus-clogged highway out of Tamil Nadu to the port city of Cochin, Kerala. Yesterday was a marathon 8-hour drive, a feat made bearable for Claire with a healthy dose of modern technology - she listened to children's music and stories on Tom's I-Pod.

Road-tripping here has been a rich experience - one never quite knows what will come next on the road - perhaps an hour of brutally rough potholes endured at 15 miles an hour, or perhaps an hour of smooth new pavement (or most frustrating, 500 yards of each, in endless succession). Perhaps the next curve will reveal one oncoming bus passing another, and the whole affair passing a rickshaw, leaving no road to spare for us - an experience that takes your breath away the first time you confront it head-on at 60 miles an hour, and then rapidly becomes just part of the flow of the road. A flow that includes oxcarts mixed with 3-wheeled rickshaws, children bicycling to school, and village women drying their lentils on the highway. Yes, right on the road - protected with rocks or branches, forcing drivers to veer around little patches of drying beans in shades of yellow, brown, red (see photo). Or, in some cases on small back roads, we slowly drove right over hay spread across the road to dry.

There are tiny children balanced on the fronts of motorcycles - again a sight that stuns you the first time, and then becomes so commonplace we only note it now if a family of five or more is balanced on a single "two wheeler." And road crews, fixing the roads after this year's record monsoons. Road crews in flop flops or bare feet, working the hot tar with rakes, carrying sand and gravel in pails balanced on their heads.

Photos: On The Road


Fort Cochin, Kerala

At our first stop in Kerala, the historic port of Cochin (or Kochi), we avoided the bustle of the city in favor of the historic Fort Cochin area, where we stayed in a small family guesthouse a stone's throw from St. Francis Church, the first Christian church in India, which dates from 1500 and held the grave of explorer Vasco de Gama until the Portugese reclaimed his bones and carried them off to Lisbon. Kerala is noticeably more Christian, with churches at every turn, nuns walking by the road, and rosaries dangling from rearview mirrors. And in every Christian home, a small shrine with a color print of the "sacred heart of Jesus" with an electric candle flickering in front of it.

Steamy and languid, Fort Cochin is a maze of small winding streets with homes in the traditional Kerala style, terra cotta roofs and rich woodwork. We began with a logistics day: a bit of local exploring, and a lot of planning, as we book hotels and transport for our 8 days in Kerala. And topped it off with a really cool performance of Kathakali, the traditional dance/theatre style of Kerala, in which richly costumed and made-up performers dance and pantomime stories to the accompaniment of drummers and a singer. Claire loved it, and danced along, mimicking the performers while standing on her seat at the back of the small, thatched hall.

When we arrived in India a little more than 2 weeks ago, we had friends to stay with the first night, and had made plans for the first week, but beyond that, we'd left many elements of our itinerary to serendipity. This meant that when we arrived in Kerala we had only a vague outline we wanted to follow, including 3 nights in the "backwaters," but no reservations. Which led us, during our logistics day in Fort Cochin, to come across the brochure for the new backwater hotel The Kondai Lip (, and after much discussion while strolling with ice cream cones in the park, we decide to give it a try.

Photo: Kathakali Dancing


The Kondai Lip Resort

As we write, we have just departed the Kondai Lip, after three remarkable nights. It is a small 7-room resort in the traditional Keralan wood architecture, which the photos will convey better than any description could. But what was most unique about our stay was that, because the place has only just opened, we were the only guests for all three days!! So we were pretty much waited on hand and foot, and treated to a series of add-on excursions by ourselves: a motor boat trip to the beach, a demonstration of local net fishing for prawns (our catch served for dinner that night), a 3-hour "country boat" excursion at dusk (propelled by a silent man standing in the rear of the large rustic canoe with a long bamboo pole), a drive around the local area to see a historic house and a traditional boat-building shop...

We also had three gorgeous meals to order each day at the hotel, at the hours of our choosing, in a beautiful intricately built open-air restaurant. Really delicious south Indian cuisine (and grilled cheese for "Clara"). Also, the place was literally surrounded on all four sides by water, so we had nothing to do but enjoy the backwaters and relax in our hammock, reading and napping. Oh, and take the pedal boats out occasionally. (The first day they even produced a six-year-old playmate for Claire!)

We had a great time there, and feel that we really lucked into a remarkable experience, but at the same time we couldn't quite stop giggling about the whole thing. Our hosts were so incredibly solicitous. It was their brand new hotel. Did we like it? Did we?? Was the service ok? Was there anything they could do, get us, arrange? We had a great timke, but it turns out to be a lot of pressure to be the only guests in a historic cottage with seven sweet Kerelan men who consider it their current life's purpose to look after you! At one point there were three staff in a single canoe paddling Claire. The last morning they had a photographer waiting, and snapped photos of us all through breakfast, for their marketing purposes, so we'll have to check the website and see if we're famous.

So what are these "backwaters?" Part of what makes this area of Kerala so remarkable is that the land is interlaced with canals, lakes and channels. It's water, water everywhere, overhung with palms, fishermen paddling past in small traditional canoes, or fishing off their back yards with large "Chinese nets" arranged on pulleys above the water. You can get most places by car, but also by boat, and boat is the way to go, children waving on the bank, Brahminy kites and iridescent kingfishers soaring overhead, and the soft rhythmic splash of a pole pushing you along.

Today, January 30th, we had a three hour car ride (arranged by our hosts at Kondai Lip, of course, and featuring Malayalam-language pop music all the way) to the beach town of Varkala, on the Arabian Sea. Claire is asleep in our hot hotel room, under the ceiling fan, completely wiped out by her long afternoon swim, then walking on the cliffs, overlooking the sea. More on that to come. Varkala is stop number ten, our last before heading back to Chennai by overnight train.

Photos: Kondai Lip