By TJ Panzer:

I don’t want to start off a fun travel story on a downer, but it’ll be brief and is relevant. My husband passed away suddenly a few months ago, and his mom, his sister-in-law, and I decided to do a group trip to India. I found out that a local yoga teacher I knew from Hermosa Beach just happened to be doing a trip around the time we wanted. I had never had much urge to go there, but something about the death of my husband and the promise of healing and enlightenment drew me in. I was also keen for a break from the exhausting grieving process.

We felt that in our circumstances it was reasonable to splurge, so we decided to spend just over $4,600 each on business-class seats for the roughly 23-hour total trip. We booked fully flat seats on Etihad Airways. My sister-in-law and I wanted to sit next to each other, and the seating plan showed a 1-2-1 arrangement, so we selected the ‘2′ component. When we got on the plane, this wasn’t the case. All three of us were separated, and it was very awkward to talk. We heard we would probably get the newer planes on the way back, but we didn’t and had the same issue–luckily two business men wanted to swap out their cozy side-by-side seats for us. Be extra sure your travel agent knows ahead of time which plane you’ll be getting, because you don’t want to sit in a configuration that makes you unhappy for that many hours! I felt the seats were a little narrow (and I’m a slim person), but the 6′ 1″ length was certainly plenty for me at 5’11” to rest all stretched out. If you’re a large person, these might not be so comfortable. Choose the first-class suites! The movie selection, on the personal entertainment system, was excellent, with over 25 new releases (some that were still in the theaters!). Etihad is one of the few airlines that will arrange a driver for you, within a 50-mile radius, if you’ve booked business class at your starting point as well as return.

I flew from Los Angeles to Chicago to meet my in-laws, who flew in from Omaha. They got to Chicago extra early in case of any winter storms and found they couldn’t get to the business-class lounge (JAL) because we were unable to print our boarding passes off the night before. We could print Abu Dhabi to Trivandrum, but not Chicago to Abu Dhabi. So they had to wait until the desk opened three hours before the flight. Once you enter the lounge, there’s not a lot that will fill you up–besides a lot of booze! There’s chips, cookies, and crackers, but that’s about it. Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, has the full spread in their business-class lounge–a hot and cold buffet bar with almost too many attendants waiting to help you at the drop of a hat. I did not notice any alcohol, though! There’s also a Six Senses Spa (only in Abu Dhabi and London) where you can choose from a selection of massages, which are free for 15 minutes. The showers there are luxurious and they give you fluffy huge towels. This was an even bigger luxury on the way home after two weeks in grimy India!

Don’t be confused–Thiruvananthapuram is formerly known as Trivandrum, and everyone still calls it Trivandrum (thank GOODness!). Make sure you don’t confuse these names on the board when catching your connecting flight. Once you’ve left immigration, keep hold of the tiny perforated tear-out portion to give to customs. Fill out your name and flight number (no need to sign it, apparently) and give it to customs after retrieving your luggage. Note that your carry-on luggage will be scanned between leaving immigration and picking up your luggage and heading through customs. Search for your name on a card your driver should be holding–your hotel can arrange pickup.

About a 30-minute hair-raising drive from the airport is the cliff-side beach resort town of Varkala, in the state of Kerala. We stayed at Puthooram Group of Resorts in the North Cliff area. Don’t be fooled by the pretty pictures on the website: it’s a bit more run down, as are most of the places along the cliffs. Don’t expect US-style accommodation. The rooms are fairly clean, but the bathrooms (as in much of India, apparently) have that open shower style–no doors on the shower, just an open showerhead, right next to the sink and toilet. (Don’t get the loo paper wet!) An air-conditioned room costs around US$75 a night, US$60 without a/c. Even in March it’s hot, so take the a/c! There’s an Internet room where you can also exchange money–the rate wasn’t too bad there–much better to do it here than at the airport. I paid US$0.25 for a half an hour of Wi-Fi (they pronounce it “wifey”), but the system kept letting me log in so I got to use it for the whole week we were there! Score!

An interesting fact about Kerala is that in 1957 it had the first freely elected communist government come to power, and the same party has stayed in power ever since! Arts and education are highly valued, and therefore the state has the highest literacy rate in all India and the highest of any developing nation in the world–at 92 percent that’s pretty impressive (compared to around 60 percent for the remainder of the country). The government focuses on tourism in this state, more than any other of the 28 states. The people here seemed happier and friendlier than in the north–perhaps because of their excellent health care and education, or because land and income is equally distributed? Staff in this area are typically from Tibet or Nepal and sleep in the restaurants and shops at night. They work late and sleep late, so if you’re an early riser, you might have to nudge them to wake them up for service. Typically they weren’t up and ready before 9 a.m. (fine by me!). Many Keralans work in the Middle East and play a big role in the state’s economy by sending money home.

The hotel did a great breakfast; for around US$3 you could choose from many delicious international concoctions, including Italian (delicious potatoes with omelet), Indian-style breakfast (flatbread with herbs and yogurt), or my favorite, the Healthy Breakfast, consisting of fruit, porridge, and a delicious thin pancake with honey and toast. The Masala tea, sometimes called Chai tea, is delicious, as is the fresh papaya juice. I looked forward to this every day, and since the restaurant was situated on the second floor, the views of the ocean couldn’t be beat. The nearby Clafouti resort became our favorite lunch and usually dinner venue. It’s situated right on the cliff, and the staff was attentive, fairly quick (unusual in India), and clean restaurant. The menu consisted of a variety of Indian dishes. The naan bread was exceptionally good and made right in front of our eyes. Again, the cost is mere dollars.

The Bohemian Masala right next door to Puthooram held yoga classes daily. In peak season (until the beginning of March) there are classes at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m. (especially for beginners) and 4 p.m., but as the season was dying down, only the 8:30 a.m. class was available. It was fantastic. I teach yoga in Los Angeles, and to have a “real” Indian yogi teach me was awesome. He had an incredible sing-songy voice and no L.A. BS! Just yoga. Donations of around US$5 were asked for. There were a dozen or so places offering yoga, so you can just pick one and turn up. It’s an inspirational way to start the day. Some prior yoga experience would be desirable.

As with the dozens of yoga venues, there are dozens of places offering Ayurvedic massage. India is the birthplace of Ayurveda, and since the state of Kerala has an abundance of herbs used in Ayurvedic treatment, it’s a good idea to check it out. The treatment generally consisted of a one-hour full body and scalp massage with herbal oils to tone the body and improve blood circulation. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but others did. If you don’t like your naked body or hair being lathered in oil while lying on a hard wooden table, then maybe it’s not for you, but just try it once, so you can say you did it! I don’t recall the name of the place, but it was around $12, and was comparable to the many other similar places around. We did a Swedish massage at a place called Sprash (no website) that was pretty good. It was around $15–not super cheap, but still a lot cheaper than back home. Don’t forget to negotiate prices. Everything’s negotiable! Every massage place has a little shower room so you can rinse off all that oil afterwards (although it took me several washes to get it out of my waist-length hair). Be warned that my sister-in-law got her nipples tweaked, too–apparently they don’t charge extra for that!

If you’re a shopper or just appreciate fine crafts, you’ll love browsing the dozens of stores. Many items are made in the states of Kashmir or Rajasthan. If you have the time (and I could easily stay here a week or two), stroll and look and decide what you’d like to bargain on. Shopkeepers try hard to get you to come into their stores. If you don’t want to, just be polite and smile and keep walking. The shopkeepers were some of the loveliest I’ve met, and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them over the week and were often invited to have tea. This was often included in negotiating. I found that having the exact amount you’re willing to spend is very helpful. Once you take that money out and they see it, they don’t want to part with it. Be firm and smile. Generally, I think you can get something for 30 percent or more off of their asking price. Don’t expect shopping to be like it is in the United States, where you’re in and out quickly. It’s a process, so enjoy it. Make sure you hand over money with the right hand–the left is for wiping your “unmentionables.” Shops close up April to July for the hot monsoon months, so there’s more leverage to bargain in March because they want to sell out for the season. A great tip is to shop early (10 a.m. or so), since the first sale of the day is good luck and they will often lower prices just to make that first sale.

The beach is wide and the water is warm. Indian-style Baywatch men patrol the beach and show tourists where to swim. Do not swim away from these guys, because there are riptides. You can rent an umbrella for around $3, depending on how long you’re staying. If you only plan on staying a short while, make sure they bring the price down.

So, was India enlightening? I’d forgotten about my quest until we arrived back in the US and the customs official asked us for the purpose of our visit. We told him it was to experience enlightenment and he asked if we found it. We all looked at each other and said we weren’t sure. I can tell you that it’s one of those things you don’t realize has happened to you until well after the event.

About the Author
TJ Panzer; New Zealand born, Australian raised with British roots and now a proud American citizen has lived and worked in five countries and traveled to 40.

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