Monthly Archives: December 2014

Travelling continued… Part 2: Alleppey

Exploring the Kerala backwaters by kayak

Exploring the Kerala backwaters by kayak

I left Cochin under the cloak of darkness, at 6.00 am in the morning, to start my journey to another tourist magnet: Alleppey.  I travelled by bus, not air-conditioned, but in the freshness of the early hours before sunrise, all that was needed was the cool breeze generated by our travel speed. Whereas the city of Cochin tempts visitors with yarns of a colourful past intertwining European and Indian history, with the hustle and bustle of fishermen on the beach, with a vibrant spice trade via its centuries’ old port, Alleppey is famed for its palm-lined backwaters and the surrounding lush paddy fields.  People flock to Alleppey to take to the rivers on shikaras, canoes and houseboats to delight in the peace and quiet of village life as it has existed for centuries along the riverbanks and lake sides.  And it feels a little like voyeurism…

But its secret has long been spilled and the once tranquil waters are congested with boats navigating carefully amongst each other.  Whereas this did not seem to affect me too much on day one as I had chosen to take a trip  on a shikara, a covered motorboat with comfortable recliner seats to relax in, it was a little more unnerving on day two when I did a similar trip in a kayak.  Bigger boats caused giant ripples for us to combat and we had to push hard to stay out of harm’s way.  Kayaking is still relatively new on the tourist scene in India and there is not yet a huge uptake – well, as you can imagine if you need to use a motorbike to cover the mere distance of a few hundred meters, kayaking for five hours may well be an effort too far. So whilst I had come to enjoy the spectacle on the banks and beyond, Indian tourists found pleasure in taking photographs of the one bobbing kayak amongst the swarm of bigger boats and I suppose I could not begrudge them their amusement as I was equally snapping away at what I perceived as ‘interesting’ sights .   See some of the pics below…

And to top it all, Alleppey saw me once again on motorbikes…  not something I will get used to, but as it was the only form of ‘pick-up’ on offer from my ‘hotel’, I went with the flow and hoped to miss all the potholes and bumps in the road, because I have no idea how all these women and children manage to stay on as pillion passengers.  It is an art I have not yet mastered, needing to hold on to everything for grabs to stop  me from falling off.  I think I must try to avoid a repeat of this; some things you only need to experience once in a lifetime….

Alleppey in pictures:

on the river

houseboats waitingphoto 4

daily life on lake

general 5

general 1

paddyfields

general 4

photo 5

wood in canoe

fish haggling

woman fishing

photo 1

daily chores - washing

photo 2

washing line

photo 3

daily chores - washing up 2

hair washing

river fun during the hols

Travelling Continued…  Part 1: Cochin

Bicycles and coconuts everywhere

Bicycles and coconuts everywhere

I have come to the conclusion that I am not made to start the day early.  After another near miss with getting up at the crack of dawn –  I inadvertently set my alarm for the time I was meant to leave the house instead of the time I needed to get up – I have to accept that my sub-conscience is clearly in stubborn protest about catching early morning trains to travel to far flung corners of Kerala.  Again I have to bless the vigilance of the mullah at the nearby mosque, whose prayer calls provide efficient back-up when my own alarm clock fails to waken me.

But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried as the tuk-tuk driver was a full 20 minutes late because of a traffic jam at 5.30 am (???)… so a frantic drive, breaking all the Indian traffic rules, ensued to get me to the train on time.  I made it with 5 minutes to spare and then another 10 minutes because the train arrived, as customary, several minutes late…  Well, in all honesty, when you look at the train tickets, the Indian Railway cover their backs by indicating that departure and arrival times are subject to change at any time and announcements in the stations always have a certain amount of flexibility built in: train number 16605 will be arriving AROUND 6.30 am…

Chinese fishing nets

Chinese fishing nets

So off I went to the touristy hotspot of Cochin, ancient city by the sea, built with the input of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial powers and, during the holiday season, invaded by visitors from all corners of the world.  I explored the Chinese fishing area and crowded side streets, but felt rather underwhelmed by the place, although the amazing Kerala prawn curry I had for lunch more than made up for it.  My refreshing cup of afternoon tea was spoiled by a most ferocious attack of the mozzies which sent me in search of my Jungle Formula.  On the upside, an early evening stroll was awarded with an unexpected glimpse inside a church where faithful and tourists joined together in a carol service but I wondered whether I really could spend another day in this place…

Luckily, the second day proved more interesting.  I walked around the Jewish quarter, admiring the Delft tiles in the Jewish Synagogue and ignoring the pestering shopkeepers, but gave in to Arshid, who promised not to hassle anyone; he only wanted to chat and practise his English and we duly made (mostly, but I’ll spare you the details) civilized conversation in his air-conditioned shop – a nice reprieve from the oppressive heat outside.

Famous clock tower of the Jewish Synagogue

Famous clock tower of the Jewish Synagogue

Later on, I accepted the invitation of a tuk-tuk driver touting for business as “fewer tourists had come this year and pickings were meagre”.  He showed me around some of the touristy places, such as the Dutch and Jewish cemeteries, which only recently have been afforded heritage protection as India slowly awakens to the importance of its past.

Jewish cemetry, now a heritage site

Jewish cemetery, now a heritage site

cochin 9

Visiting relics of past histories.

Visiting relics of past histories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We paid a visit to the ruins of what once may  have been a majestic building dating from the times of the Portuguese, or so it is presumed as the markings on the front have long since eroded.  And after the building was vacated just around twenty years ago, local people generously helped themselves to all the parts that were usable and moveable: doors, windowpanes and frames vanished, roof beams proved an attractive asset and roof tiles could provide better protection for inhabited homes, only concrete patches remain as reminders of what must have been a floor…  But who can blame poor Indian people for availing themselves of what is freely on offer and who is to judge the historical significance of any building anyway?  The ruins have become a magnet for mosquitoes so our stay was short as they were all gunning for me…  And my remarks about the squalor of the place and how the building might be made more attractive to visitors if rubbish was removed, were greeted by incredulity.  ‘What is it that attracts Western tourists to India?  If India becomes clean and looks like the Western world, hides destitution and wretchedness, what would Western visitors come to look at?’ the tuk-tuk driver mused…  But there will always be the beaches, the sunshine, the cooler mountains and hopefully some well cared for historical buildings.

Better not touch your eyes after doing this all day...

Better not touch your eyes after doing this all day…

Our trip took us to oil drum recycling businesses  and ginger production plants and chilli and coriander sorting and storing warehouses where women whiled away the hours doing laborious work. As our journey ended at lunch time, the tuk-tuk driver sought out a proper Indian eatery, frequented mainly by Indian people, where I had the most incredible biryani and learnt the secret of eating rice with my hands without it all falling back onto my plate.  There is a very special technique to this!

To finish off my stay in Cochin, I had been enticed to take a cookery lesson, and although I am quite a proficient cook, I did learn a thing or two, not in the least the importance of popping your mustard seeds before adding the onions, garlic, ginger and chilli, followed by the powdered spices after lowering the temperature…  Food was delicious, but I now have to recreate it in my kitchen at home…  And, before I forget,…

cochin 11

… I also got my first experience of being pillion passenger on an Indian motorbike – not too bad as we went quite slowly and there was hardly any other traffic on the road.  Why we had to use a bike in the first place to cover the 500 m or so between my ‘homestay’ and the place of the cookery lesson is a complete mystery to me.  Maybe men think they have something to prove as at least they are allowed to be in the driver’s seat…  But it goes a long way to explain the unfitness of the general Indian population…

Just a few more photographs:

cochin 14

 

cochin 16

 

cochin 15

 

cochin 17

cochin 10

 

cochin 12

 

Part 2 Alleppey to follow

And another Christmas committed to history.

Ladies wearing Kerala saries.

Ladies wearing Kerala saries.

Xmas exuberance!!

‘Xmas Father’… all white???

So Christmas came and went…  And I managed to spend most of it sleeping.

On the one hand, I had plenty of rest to catch up on as the previous night I barely closed my eyes.  My accommodation for the last night of my travels was a far cry from 1-star luxury and the mini-fan on the ceiling was hardly a match for the burning heat bursting from the synthetic sheets.  That, and the buzzing of mosquitoes, and the itching of the bites on my legs from previous days, made for a less than comfortable night.  So a refreshing night’s sleep in my own bed between freshly laundered white cotton sheets, in a fairly mosquito-free zone, was the order of the day.

On the other hand, after almost two months of taking every precaution in the book not to succumb to tummy bugs, I paid the price for carelessness and politeness…  So as not to offend my host (kayak navigator on the Alleppey backwaters), I had to eat a delicious lunch prepared by his wife.  And I am sure that the food withstood all rigours of hygiene, but presented on a banana leaf that may have been cleaned with the waters from the surrounding lakes and rivers and washing my hands with cold water with no soap or disinfectant available, would not have been the best way to deal with bacteria collected on my travels on the waters… At the same time, eating with my right hand and dispensing with unnecessary cutlery is becoming second nature. So, on Christmas Day, I nursed the results: I skipped breakfast and instead of a turkey roast dinner, I managed two slices of plain toast and a cup of ginger tea…  I had a small portion of pasta with an improvised version of ratatouille for supper and was in bed by 8.00 pm…

But I did glimpse a little of the true meaning of Christmas and how it is celebrated in Kerala. Lured by the sounds of passing bands,  I ventured out to buy some tomatoes and witnessed the biggest get-together of people of all ages and probably all faiths in a procession of fun, laughter and Christmas cheer.  Whilst all and sundry in the UK would be spending Christmas afternoon in front of the television watching films and favourite TV shows, or maybe even the Queen’s speech,  or would be engaging in family fun and walks and opening presents, in Kerala schools and churches put on a show for all to enjoy in a display of unity of all faiths.  The coming together of all faiths and celebrating of all important religious festivals has created a religious tolerance in Kerala that allows people of all faiths to live together in harmony.

xmas 2

Christmas exuberance on the Kerala streets.

In the Christmas Parade exuberant Father Christmases joined Joseph and Mary in the stable; shepherds came to visit and the three wise men brought gifts; angels sang songs and their voices were drowned out by the schools’ steel drum and brass bands; jubilant youngsters danced to merry tunes and children dressed representing Christians, Hindus and Muslims.  And ribbons of church faithful in Kerala’s national dress crowded the street.   Christmas was a feast for all to revel and take part in.

Although the real Christian faithful will also have spent their morning in church in prayer… So when I bumped into one of the teachers of Sai Krishna School, a devout Christian who joined the parade small child in tow, she asked whether I had gone to church in the morning to pray,  I could honestly say that I did not as I had not been feeling well – which was very much the truth.  But whether I would have gone out of my way to find a church to spend Christmas morning in prayer under different circumstances,  I cannot honestly answer… However, I did catch the end of a Christmas Carol service last Sunday in Cochin – does that count????

Cinderella shall go to the ball!!

Just one of the many shades available...

Just one of the many shades available…

Poor Cinderella, downtrodden and despised by her cruel stepsisters and evil stepmother, was always going to make it to the ball.  Mice, pumpkins, Fairy Godmothers and the like busied themselves and magic worked miracles: poor rags became glamour rags; rodents and vegetables turned into courtly carriages. All to ensure Cinderella would not escape her fairytale fate.  Happy endings for all…

So did the same forces conspire to my inevitable surrender to the ‘joys’ of Christmas as every attempt I have made to eradicate its existence this year has been thwarted…  Of all the places to go to in India, I chose the one with the highest number of Christians.  Weeks ago, outside a big department store in Trivandum, I bumped into ‘Christmas Father’, travelling with camels and reindeer alike.  Today’s Christmas celebration at Sai Krishna Public School was publicised well in advance and I stretched my Christmas spirit into teaching the children appropriately jolly Christmas Carols with a Caribbean overtone.  I gave in to ‘Music Sir’ and left him to his alternative version of ‘Silent Night’ and sang it on stage with the other teachers (well, I stuck to the proper lyrics).  Only yesterday, I donated an abandoned string of Christmas lights found in a store cupboard in my home to Anandu, as I had no intention of putting them up. Today, I almost avoided buying a Christmas cake, but it will now be maturing on the bottom shelf of the fridge as I will not be here to eat it.  And to top it all, my lucky dip Christmas present was a light-up Christmas tree of the sort that changes colour at the blink of an eyelid and otherwise looks very unexciting. Why could it not have been a box of chocolates, a gift that does not particularly scream Christmas at you???

The message could not be clearer or louder: Christmas has cometh and I shall enjoy!!  At least Cinderella was a willing participant… and there was a prince at the end…  But then, hang on, with still four days to go to 25th December and some travelling to do, who knows what might happen by Christmas Day???

Sports Day in December!

Exams are finished!!!  No wonder the kids were all excitable yesterday afternoon and were not in the mood for any serious work.  And today, and also tomorrow, it is sports day.  With so many children taking part in so many different events, it cannot all be fitted into one school day…  Not that all the children came to school today; apparently attending sports day is optional and some parents feel their children would be wasting their time in a school if there is no teaching going on!!  But those who were present had a very enjoyable day and not many English children would have beaten them in any of the races…  Probably, English children would not have run and parents would have been up in arms watching children run barefoot on gravel, but in India, they did not bat an eyelid and I spotted many Zola Budds in the making….

bare feet run girls    bare feet running boys

The egg and spoon race has been reinvented as the ‘lemon and spoon’ race…

lemon and spoon

and I have finally seen there are many different ways to escape the unrelenting afternoon sun and none of them require Factor 30!!

ladies keeping cool

The massacre of ‘Silent Night’

xmas stars

nativity 3With Christmas looming, people are in overdrive.  Glittery tinsel, colourful giant stars, balloons, artificial Christmas trees and even the most garish nativity scenes are all on sale.  And a wide selection of Asian Plum cake and cream cakes is available from bakeries and the local supermarket. Christmas carols are

sung by the Christian faithful, and at school ‘Music Sir’ has his heart set on ‘ Silent Night’.  I have previously duly pointed out the errors in his version of the song, but I might as well not have bothered…  And as he is expecting me to sing the song to keep everyone on the right track,  I am really struggling to pull this off. Not only are we still circling ’round you Virgin’, shepherds are quacking instead of quaking, the in-fant sounds decidedly un-British-English (or any other version of English I am familiar with) and as for the old-English ‘thy’, in their version it rhymes with ‘me’.  I will have another attempt at salvaging the song at tomorrow’s last ditch rehearsal, but fear it may be a doomed mission and I shall have to accept that ‘Silent Night’ will not have the same ring to it on the Indian sub-continent, more’s the pity.  I suppose  I shall just have to put my fingers in my ears to blot out the Indian version of ‘Silent Night’ whilst mouthing the correct words to the correct tune…

A/c or non A/c rooms (with hot water)…

with hot wateer

This weekend I visited Varkala, a touristy destination for lovers of the beaches and the sun and a magnet for backpackers, gap year people and cold souls who spend their ‘winters’ here.  I set off on Friday and instead of doing the journey by train, I had to resort to using the bus service to Trivandrum first, as the train I was supposed to catch was not going to get to the station any time soon.  Although it took me a while to work out where to get on the correct bus, it was better than sitting at the train station twiddling my thumbs.  Ironically, as it turned out, by the time I had found the bus and trundled to Trivandrum, I was on the train I would have caught in my town in the first place…  Well, this time I did not travel in AC on the train, deciding to travel the way most Indians do; it was only a short journey anyway.  To be quite honest, it could have been worse, but it did not help that I had to stand the whole time and chose a compartment near the men’s toilets – at least for once I had a good use for my unnecessary shawl…  And today, on the way home, I arrived at the station just having missed a train and the next one was not due for another 2 or maybe three hours, but how long is a piece of string and today all the trains were delayed.  So I decided that a bus journey might be preferable…  It took me three hours to cover a one hour train journey, but at least I did not have to sit in the station being bored and I now know where to get buses in Trivandrum which will definitely be useful for the future.   Although it is a bit of a pain to use public transport, the 50km journey to Varkala only cost me 50p on the way there and 60p on the way back – a powerful argument for someone on a budget.

I got up early yesterday morning, looking forward to a peaceful stroll on the beach beating the sun-worshippers.  7.30am  seemed a reasonable time on a Saturday morning, or so I thought.  I set off, camera in hand, and walked my two minutes to the deserted promenade overlooking palm fringed beaches and gently lapping waves.  A few early bird shopkeepers were already busy hawking tourists, whilst others swept away the visitor debris from the previous night.  But if I was expecting the beach just for me, I should have been up at 6.00am to witness sunrise.  The beach is the perfect place for the early morning mind-emptying practice of meditation and unnatural yoga poses.  Morning sees Hindu devotees making offerings to their Gods and fishermen drawing in their nets. Morning is the perfect time to catch the waves on a surfboard. The morning sun bronzes your skin before the heat of the day becomes unbearable.  The morning breeze cools down beach-volley ball players before the sun burns too hot. So, I joined the many other tourists and locals and washed my feet in refreshingly cool sea water; I had not had the foresight of putting on my swimsuit leaving that pleasure for later on, sort of 10-ish or thereabouts.

I decided to have a shower in the meantime… But the only water I could produce from any tap was decidedly lukewarm.  Just for a few brief seconds there was a semblance of hot water, which evaporated as soon as it came and left me with a bucket of water too cold to wash my hair.  I suppose I should have taken note of the signs on some home stay boards which proudly advertised ‘with hot water’ that this kind of luxury did not come as standard…  I went to investigate and asked the owner.  It appeared that hot water is weather dependent and water is heated ‘au naturel’ by the power of the sun…  Unfortunately, as Friday had been a rainy day, lack of sunshine caused a lack of hot water, so I delayed my shower until the sun had done its work, after about an hour or so.  Just enough time to make it to the beach to soak up some sun rays and find a nice place for a healthy (Western??) breakfast before returning for a wash and an afternoon siesta.  And that is what I did, I had a fruit salad  and drank Black Masala tea without sugar; I let the sun rays warm my skin and cooled down in the invigorating waves and came back to steaming hot water in my bucket – the closest I was going to get to a shower.

I like Varkala.  A place where backpackers and ‘gappers’ of all ages and normal tourists on a budget converge to tell tales of past and forthcoming travel.  Where people talk to each other from the balconies of their home stays to lament a home-going after four months/eight months/a year of bliss and tranquillity and traversing far-flung corners of the earth.   Where people go to mend broken hearts without constant reminders of a past too painful.  Where people coast until the recession wears off and job opportunities improve.  Where people return each year to escape cold winters. The place where I could  indulge in Western and International food and could – finally after six weeks – have a green salad without having to worry about the consequences for my innards. The place where I met up again with Linka, who crossed my path last week at the train station on the way back from elephant hunting.  Travelling alone opens the doors to new experiences and meeting new people.  And not even the heavy afternoon downpour on Saturday afternoon dampened the spirit.

I am already counting down to my next visit – end of January???