Incredible India – Part Four

Our sojourn at the Ayervedic spa may have been brief but it was interesting.   The festival celebrations at the nearby Hindu temple went on most of the day and night.  We now feel familiar enough with Hindu tunes to offer our services next time.  We met the other four guests and really enjoyed their company.  It was a shame that our schedule didn’t allow us to stay longer.  I indulged in a massage which was one of the best ever.

After a little discussion and some research, we booked a train from Palakhad to Aluva (pronounced Aloowa).  Then the plan was to head up to Munnar and the tea plantations by taxi.

We had another wonderful train journey down from Palakhad.  The taxi was easy to arrange and our lovely driver stopped at a fabulous local restaurant en route so that we could have refreshments.  I introduced Sue to her first taste of the delicious masala dosa!  A massive, thin disc of rice flour and lentil pancake that is filled with a potato and vegetable masala and loosely rolled.  It is gently laid across a tray and droops over the sides.  There are accompanying lentil dahl, vegetable curry and coconut chutney.  Full marks!!

We continued on up into the cool of the hills and turned off the main road as darkness decended.  We bounced along yet more pot-holed and rock strewn road and finally arrived at Eagle Mountain Hotel.  (Bison Valley Road, Ottarmaram,  eaglemountainmunnar@yahoo.com www.eaglemountainmunnar.com) We were shown to our enormous bedroom with balcony and were keen to see the view in the morning.

Oh WOW!  What an amazing sight met our eyes.  We were also able to hear the distinctive off-key whistling of the Malibar song thrush entertaining us and accompanying the view to music.  Well, a rendition remarkably like, ‘Happy Birthday to You’.

We spent a quiet first day relaxing and enjoying the mountain air.  I booked a walking tour (MunnarTrekkingAdventure.gmail.com www.munnartrekkingadventure.com) around the tea plantations for the following day.  We organised a tuk-tuk to take us to to the meeting point at 0630h and then we were taken off on a beautiful, breath-taking and extensive tour of the surrounding countryside.  Our guide was informative about the history of the tea plantations.  After walking 12km we were ready for a reviving cup of chai and a lime soda.  Once again, we met some interesting and friendly fellow travellers.

After our walk, we explored Munnar town which hasn’t really got much to recommend it, I’m afraid to say.  The market area was quite interesting however, and we also enjoyed the tea museum.   I was able to get my wedding ring expanded for a fee.  About 30p!

By late afternoon, the fact that i had been quite sun burnt in the morning, became apparent to me, as my face and neck were very sore where they had been exposed to the rays.  I was like a beacon!

To save ourselves a bit of time we booked a night bus to take us on to the coast to Kollam. We then spent the next five hours biting our nails as the bus practically time travelled its way down.  We arrived with our hair standing on end, hot and sweaty (there was no air con!) and collapsed with nervous exhaustion into our hotel at 0200h.

The next morning, we met with the agent from Palm Tree Heritage, and were taken to our houseboat which was to be our home for the next couple of days.

A simple house and dug out canoes.
Suspended fishing nets
Water buffalo keeping cool.

This was yet another wonderful way to spend time and enjoy India.  The boats are converted rice barges and they have a beautifully wrought wicker cover over them with openings for windows and sun decks.  Ours had two palatial en-suite double rooms and a miniature spiral staircase to take you to the shaded dining area.

 

 

 

 

 

We were fed like Maharanis on a delicious array of Keralan curries.  Rama, the chef, gave me a lesson whilst Captain Mohan instructed Sue in how to drive the boat.

Rama, Biju and Captain Mohan
Jack fruit

The lovely Biju looked after us providing drinks, food and fruit in a constant flow. We were taken on a guided tour of a local homestead and shown just how lush and productive this area is.  There were bananas, jack fruit, coconuts, rose apples, green pepper corns, pomelo and pineapples growing with gay abandon.

Our punt driver on the back waters.
The milk man Keralan style.

All too soon, it was time to disembark.  We took a taxi to Varkala and checked in to Palm Tree Heritage hotel right on the beach.

Ah! Tea!!

Next:  Beach time, Trivandrum and back to Cochin.

Amazing India – The Parambikulam Tiger Reserve Part Three

Just as we were getting settled in Cochin, it was time to move on.  I had booked train tickets from Cochin to Palakhad from the comfort of my armchair using the excellent Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Company – IRCTC website.

With a few clicks of the mouse, I had booked our 2nd class air conditioned sleeper berth;  a four hour train journey on the Chennai Superfast Express, for the princely sum of £7.50.

We left the homestay fairly early and arrived in plenty of time at Ernakulam Town railway station. We awaited the train in the First Class Waiting room – It was fashionably late!

Once on board, I simply had to show my booking on my phone and passport and the train guard was perfectly happy.

Soon came the chai and coffee wallahs.  We had sweet coffee.  Later the biryani wallahs took my order and I was presented with a huge portion in perfect time for lunch.

All too soon we were at our destination and then it was a simple and pleasant negotiation with the taxi drivers at the stand to arrange our onward journey to Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

I had already booked accommodation and Sue was a little perturbed to discover that I had selected a tree house and a tent for our two nights…Entirely suitable accommodation for a couple of aging memsahibs, I thought!

We arrived at the security hut and gates to the reserve just beyond the town of Pollachi at exactly 1730h.  The guard said he was unable to let us in because it was too late.  However, after some chat and charm from us we paid our dues (Foreigners Rates – How did he know we were foreigners???) and were allowed to proceed.  We bounced along increasingly pot-holed roads.  As the evening gloom arrived we saw three different types of monkey swinging through the enormous trees that shimmied ever closer.  The monkeys peered in at us as we peered out at them.

We arrived at a place called Topslip.  After a few enquiries, we were directed with a wave of the hand and a nicely timed head wobble to a further destination some 20km further on into the reserve.

By now it was dark. Our taxi driver was wonderful. Using his own phone he called the park officials and arranged for us to be met by a park ranger and for our dinner to be prepared.

I must say that we were mightily pleased to see lights and a building when we finally drew up at 2030h! And so was our taxi driver, I suspect.

Later, reading the small print, I noticed that the booking document said; Check in – 1230h but I had assumed it meant we could check in from then, not at then!  Little did I comprehend just how remote and huge a place this is and how it is best not to be wandering around here in the dark.

We were fed a delicious dinner and then shown to our tree house. A charming bamboo covered affair on stilts with a slightly disconcerting list to the down hill side.  Anyway, it came complete with a shower room and precariously balanced flushing toilet.

After a good sleep we awoke at dawn to have a quick cup of tea and to meet our guide and helper from the night before, Mr Manihandran.

Joining us were our dinner companions.  We chatted and they kindly invited us to join them on safari in their comfortable car.  I accepted, and Sue gave me a look that suggested she might not be best pleased with that plan! We brought Mr M along as chaperone and all was well.

Despite seeing fresh elephant dung and signs that elephants had been walking around, we didn’t actually see any.  We marvelled at the beautiful scenery. Huge teak trees dominated.

We arrived back and found ourselves in a throng of people all of whom wanted to take selfies with us, shake our hands and introduce themselves.

We slipped away after thanking our new friends and headed off to the dining room for a delicious breakfast.

Soon we were picked up by Mr M and walked a couple of kilometers to the huge lake where we taken out on a bamboo raft.

From there we headed back to the tree house to pick up our bags and catch the public bus to the village where our next night would be spent.  We bounced back along the road we had arrived on the previous evening and had covered in our morning safari! This route was becoming quite familiar but, unfortunately, no less pot-holed. We arrived in time for lunch.  Yet another yummy meal.  Keralan curries and condiments.

We were shown to our ‘Tented Niche’. A luxury tent with ensuite shower room.

At 1500 we were ready and waiting for our ‘Safari’.

A camouflaged vehicle arrived.  Mr M had advised us to sit at the front.  Once more we rattled and bumped down the road we’d just arrived on.  I am not quite sure how it was that the bus actually held itself together.  The noise of its progress down the track would surely scare off any tigers!

At 1800 we were back in the area where our tree house had been.  We attended the Reserve Orchestra and Tribal Dance Performance which had a dizzying (and, rather giddy) effect on us.  The women dancers shuffled round and round the stage in time to traditional drums and instruments.  We managed to stay calm as we piled back in the vehicle for our ‘Night Safari’.

The highlight was spotting the family herd of elephants on our way back down the bone-shaking road.

The herd included a huge matriarch who was looking less than thrilled to be having a very bright torch beam flashed in her eyes.   As her ears flapped a warning we gazed in wonder at the couple of babies and young juvenile in the group.  It was a special moment. Luckily, the boss elephant declined to rush the bus, shove us over and roll us down the steep hill behind.

We also saw mongoose, hares, some buffalo, deer, monkeys but no tigers.  There are apparently forty two tigers in the reserve but since it is so huge they make the sensible judgement to stay well away from any kind of human settlement!

Soon, we arrived back at base (again) and had a huge dinner.  We slept so well after the strain and effort involved in trying to keep our bodies upright and on our seats.

The next morning, we were to meet Mr M at 0630h to take part in a walking safari.  For me thus was the highlight of the whole weekend.  It was simply mesmerising to be out in the wild at that time.  Mr M was extremely knowledgeable about birds and flora.  The realisation that elephants and alligators had recently been where we were walking added a certain frisson  to the proceedings.

We said our goodbyes and caught the public bus back through the reserve to Palakhad.  The temperature gradually increased as we descended in altitude.

Next stop was the Ayervedic Spa Hotel……ah! Bliss!

Next: We head to the Tea Plantations around Munar

India Part Two – Exploring Fort Cochin

A beautiful Ambassador car. Very like a Morris Oxford. All curves and nostalgia.

On our first morning in Fort Cochin, at Coconut Grove Homestay, we were presented with a delicious breakfast of fresh pineapple juice, masala omelettes; spicy and tasty; toast and chai.  Despite being full from last night’s feast we still managed to eat everything up.

The lovely Mr T.

Promptly at 1000hrs, we met up with Mr. T as arranged.  He was to take us to all the main sights around Fort Cochin in his auto-rickshaw.

He joked about the free air conditioning as we sped through the narrow streets and weaved in and out of traffic, pedestrians and pot holes.

During the day we visited temples, shrines and palaces.  We had a stop at a government shop where Sue succumbed and bought a beautiful Kashmiri carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

After that we were in need of a caffeine fix so stopped in a local coffee shop for a very sweet coffee and a basic lesson in Malayalam, the Keralan language, from the charming Mr T.

Next stop, was the laundry or ‘dobi’ business.  Here clothes, bed and table linen is washed by hand, by the dobi wallahs, in the traditional method.  There are cubicles where the washing takes place.  It is then hung out to dry on rows and rows of washing lines without the aid of pegs.  The edges are tucked into the twisted coconut sisal lines.

 

On our way out I noticed a hut where a man was ironing a huge pile of clothes.  He was using a very old hot box style of iron.  It was filled with burning coconut shell charcoals and was very hot.  I couldn’t resist having a go.  The iron was incredibly heavy but slid over the clothes brilliantly.  My ‘boss’ sprinkled water onto the clothes and they came out sharply creased and smart.  It was very hot work and I much appreciated the patience with which my attempts were met.

Sacks of ginger awaiting transportation.
Nutmeg, star anice, ginger….you name it…they have it!

After a lunch of vegetable pakora, chickpea curry and rice we set off again.  We passed old Portuguese style buildings, ram-shackled spice warehouses and wharfs where spices from the Malabar region of Kerala were transported around the rest of the world in times gone by.

Sue was encouraged to take a turn of sifting the pieces of ginger in order to grade them for size.  She and one of the women from the co-operative each took a hold of a handle on a large tray with a mesh in the bottom.  The ginger pieces were placed on the mesh and the tray was shaken vigorously from side to side to loosen the smaller pieces and then the remaining pieces were thrown in another pile.  This was physically demanding work.  Outside, in the courtyard, women were bent double over the drying ginger and sifting by hand in the blazing sun.  Elsewhere, there where blankets of black, white and brown peppercorn covering the courtyard, giving off a nose ticking aroma as they dried

 

in the sun.

The gorgeous women of the spice market cooperative who were so friendly.
Just a few peppercorns!

We bought some of the spices and herbs on sale in the higgledy-piggledy old warehouse.

Soon, we were off again, zooming through the streets marvelling at what we saw left and right.

We arrived at the water front where the Chinese fishing nets are deployed; hanging suspended above the water like gossamer witches hats.  The product of their canti-levered workings was being sold on nearby stalls.  We saw the amazing canoes and dug outs along the shoreline.  

We arrived back in the late afternoon and settled with Mr T (INR 800 – about £8).  What a fantastic day!  We totally agreed with the street art down near the waterfront.

KOCHIN IS NOT A CITY, IT’S A FEELING!!

Trip to India – Part One

Back in October 2017, my great friend Sue Lowrey, asked me if I’d like to join her for a trip to Kerala, South West India, in the Spring.  I gave the matter grave consideration for all of two seconds and accepted with alacrity!  It would be about thirty-five years since either of us  last visited India.

Consulting well-travelled friends and neighbours, we soon had a few ideas of what to see and do.

We flew in to Cochin International Airport less fresh after twenty four hours travelling than the brand-new, cleaned and painted terminal building, which was very swanky.  It came complete with comfortable armchairs in which to recline whilst the immigration wallahs filled in forms, snapped photographs and took our digital fingerprints.   Better not misbehave in India.

First question;

‘Have you been to India before, Maam’?

Hmmmm, surely it was so long ago as to no longer matter.

‘No!’ came my unswerving reply!  The least complicated choice of response.

Within minutes we were reunited with our compact less than ten kilogram bags and whisked off in a comfortable taxi towards Fort Cochi and our homely bed and breakfast, Coconut Grove Homestay. 

 

En route we saw something of the size of the city, crammed with traffic, sail-like billboards and buildings of every conceivable size, shape and design.  There was even a procession of bands and brightly decorated wagons to welcome us.  It reminded me very much of Bangkok.

After a brief rest and our first welcome cup of hot and sweet masala chai, we ventured out of the tranquility of the lush garden and walked around the neighbourhood.    Within seconds, we happened upon wide, open park areas, huge canopied Portuguese ‘rain trees’, sign posts proclaiming this as God’s Own Country, egg yellow auto rickshaws, traditional terracotta roof- tiled houses and fiercely fought cricket matches.  Overall, there was peaceful and calm ambiance compared to the chaos of Ernakulam, the modern part of the city of Cochin.

With homing beacon instincts, we soon found the main shopping area of Princes Street.  Here our olfactory nerves were piqued by fragrant oil perfumes, pungent leather work and powerful drains. At every turn we saw astonishing sights including; colourful powder paints, libraries of folded saris and unusual musical instruments of dubious tunefulness.

By 1800hrs we were straight in to our first experience – a Keralan cookery lesson at the Flavour Cooking School on Queiros Street.

 

We were welcomed to the home of Meera and her family.  All the ingredients for the five dishes we were to cook were laid out ready. Meera gave us comprehensive recipe sheets. She explained what to do and answered all our questions.  Later in the evening her husband arrived home and took charge of teaching us how to make chapattis.   We were intrigued to know more and soon we had a lesson in how to prepare puri, parottas and parathas.

Needless to say, it was all delicious.  Although we elected to cook vegetarian dishes, the Keralans are renowned for eating almost everything.  Due to the range of religious communities in Kerala there is a wide range of meats not available in other regions of India.  Its proximity to the sea also means that there is an incredible array of sea food, too.

Full as eggs, we found our way back and slept like babies.

 

 

Next:  India Part Two – Exploring Cochin.

 

Keira starts her studies in The Netherlands.

At the end of January, after almost two months working at the wonderful  Fountaine Inn, Linton, in The Yorkshire Dales National Park (where food is served all day, every day!), Keira set off to Leiden University in The Netherlands to do an MA in Literary Studies.  She has a flat share in The Hague and can commute by bicycle and train to and from Leiden with relative ease.

Happily, I was able to tag along with her for a few days to help her settle in but mainly in order to build her flat pack wardrobe and desk!!!

The sluicegate house – with a slight drunken lean.

We were able to spend a lovely day sightseeing in Amsterdam.  It was a great day despite rather wet weather.

 

 

The main square in Amsterdam

 

 

 

 

We walked absolutely miles and, in a particularly torrential downpour, found ourselves in a Cheese Museum

where we  must have eaten a kilo of cheese from their tasting board.  Who knew that Gouda could have so many variations?  My favourite was a mature cheese flavoured with roasted cumin seeds.

After a sobering visit to the Anne Frank Museum we returned to Den Hague, eating some delicious fast food falafel en route.

 

On the Tuesday, Keira attended her orientation in Leiden whilst I completed the flat pack job.  I joined her in the afternoon for the Mayor’s welcome speech to all four hundred plus international students starting at the half way stage of the academic year.  He was very amusing.  The student body seems very well organised.  There were lots of offers of support and assistance, discounts and social events that made me wish I was starting my studies again.

A pretty windmill and bridge with the reflection of the moon in the water.

We were taken on a tour of Leiden which is just so pretty;  with its arching bridges over the many canal cuttings criss-crossing the town and its beautiful windmills slicing the sky and making wonderful silouettes.

On my last evening, we tried out a well known Surinamese restaurant in the centre of The Hague.  The food was an interesting mix of Asian and Indonesian, Caribbean and European.  There were some items that we had never tasted like casava chips; we had a veritable feast for a few Euros.

I returned to the UK in time to take over from Erin who had come up North to look after Ian post hernia operation.  He is recovering nicely thanks to her ministrations.  Keira is enjoying her course and life in The Netherlands.

Our Dutch girl

Next:  Sarah heads back to India after a gap of 35 years.

 

The boating adventures of a Yorkshire couple