Tag Archives: India

India Part Five

A red kites flies with the kites!

Our first experience of Palm Tree Heritage Hotel was sitting beneath the trees on the edge of the beach,  examining the wave action of the Arabian sea and watching the red kites swoop and soar overhead; whilst sipping a mint soda drink.  If this was to be the format for the next few days then it would be fine by me.

We were checked into our perfect little room on the cliff top and listened to the waves pounding the rocks below.  With a beach on both sides we were in a prime position.  Palm trees shaded our little balcony and we enjoyed watching people stroll by along the red tufa path.

At night we could see the lights of around forty fishing boats twinkling on the horizon.

We managed to exert enough energy to walk both north and south along the cliff path and discovered that we were in just about the most perfect spot.  Unspoilt and quiet.  The shops along the cliff to the south were interesting enough and I visited the Varkala Aquarium to while away an afternoon.   I could have seen a 3D film for an extra 25rupees but there weren’t enough visitors to warrant showing the film.  I elected to pay the full amount (£2.50) and sat in the cool of the air-con with all the members of staff who had come in to watch with me.

Every day; the farmers drove their water buffalo between beach and farm, right past our front door.  Every morning; the fishermen laid their nets from the beach using remarkable coconut trunk canoes and lots of enthusiasm.

From about 0730h they began pulling these enormous nets back onto the beach.  One morning, I happened to be there and offered to assist.  The fishermen were amused by my joining in.

After about 45mins the net, and the daily catch was in.  They had pulled in many small fry; all wriggling and shimmering in a fishy mess enclosed by the tiny mesh of the net.  There was also a sting ray and some larger fish.   There was an awful lot of plastic too but that was simply thrown back into the water!

The work was not over yet  The nets were laid out along the entire area of the beach and the men sat down and began the intricate process of fixing any holes.  The huge boat also had to be dragged and spun on its axis to a safe distance up the beach.

Locals told us that the beach used to be a wide curving expanse of sand but after a very severe cyclone hit Kerala in November 2017 (Cyclone Ockhi ) the coast line changed.   The waves at that time were as high as 7m in some areas and there was a deluge of accompanying rainfall. The cyclone claimed at least 12 lives and more than 200 fishermen were left stranded and had to be rescued.  This was a sobering thought as we looked out over what looked like a fairly benign stretch of water. 

Since then, the water level has risen to such an extent as to be a threat to properties along the cliff. The remaining beach was really quite small.   The waves came crashing in full of sand.  Swimming from the beach was quite challenging especially entering and leaving the water. I didn’t fancy it but Sue was brave enough to swim.

One day, we decided to head into Trivandrum, the capital of communist  governed Kerala.  First stop was the Temple, well, after a masala dosa snack!  After that, we felt armed and ready to head out into the heat to walk round the beautiful building.   We wandered the streets and then went to the park intending to visit the zoo and the museum there, but both we closed on Mondays.

The heat sapped our remaining energy reserves and we were glad to get back to the station and thence to the cool breeze on the beach.

The day after we organised a quick visit to the elephant sanctuary near Varkala, where we saw a number of elephants chained up in the shade.  We fed one of the elephants 5 kilos of bananas which he dispatched in about 30 seconds. It was a rather dispiriting experience and not at all what I had hoped for.

After our few days relaxation, we headed back to Cochin on the train.  We met friends on the train and had a good chat with them as we trundled back to Cochin.

We stayed in a lovely hotel on Princess Street and enjoyed wandering around the area.   We had a pleasant evening sampling the delights of the Old Harbour Hotel and The Tower Hotel next door.  We ate at a fantastic waterside restaurant on our last night.  Our visit to the Folklore Museum; housing an incredible private collection of items and antiques  from around Kerala;  involved a wonderful ferry ride across from Fort Cochin to the modern part of the city; Ernakulam.  That was one of the highlights for me as it was a cool and stress free way to travel.

 

All too soon, it was time to be heading back to the UK.  We have had such an amazing time and have many wonderful memories from our trip.

 

 

 

 

 

Til the next time India……

Next:  Back to the boat, Linea in Marina di Ragusa, Sicily.

 

 

 

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.

India Part Three – The Parambikulam Tiger Reserve

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!!

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.