Tuesday, March 27, 2007
After a bumpy bumpy 5 hour bus ride from Fort Kochin we arrived in Munnar. The higher you got, the worse the roads were, and with all the curves and bends in the road, it was a relief to finally get there. We both took a betablockers (slows your heartrate!) before the bus ride which made the bends and curvy mountain passes tolerable. The bus also stopped at least 20 times, on occasions for 'a chai stop' for ten minutes, or another 'chai stop' for five minutes.
Cochin had been baking hot, 35 degrees at night and high thirties during the day. As the bus went higher and higher, you could sense that the air was getting cooler, and finally there was the fresh, crisp mountain air of Munnar. There are dramatic mountains all around the little village, and acres and acres of these perfectly manicured tea estates - it basically looks like loads of giant broccoli florets placed so perfectly and neatly next to each other. Absolutely gorgeous!
We found a lovely guesthouse, at the recommendation of our rickshaw driver, which was new and clean. It was also the hub for all travellers and every night we would gather on the roof top to trade travel stories and tips. We met travellers from Mexico, Canada, Switzerland and of course, as in everywhere in India, Israelis. Our three months of travelling paled in comparison to so many people who we met who had been travelling for two or three years, just amazing to hear there experiences.
A Swiss couple were travelling with great little speakers and soon it was international tunes, the Mexican music, the Swiss and Italian, was great. We hung out drinking Kingfisher beer and hot chai. Another first was to have a hot shower with proper hot water before going to bed. It was our first hot water shower after travelling for over 5 weeks.
After chilling and roaming the little town centre on the first day, we were ready for some trekking. The next day we set off on a 6 km walk through the tea plantations. Well, in India they always seem to give you a measurement that's not quite accurate. If they say an hour it could mean anything from 20 minutes to two hours so the 6km walk seemed more like 8km. It was so beautiful and peaceful. We met the occasional tea picker, dressed in brightly coloured sarrees and carrying huge bags of picked tea leaves on their heads. We finished the walk at about lunch time, chilled and then headed for the sundowner walk to the view point. We took a turn at the wrong stage, due to a really bad typically drawn Indian map, and ended up walking further into the tea plantations, through herds of cattle. It was great but we soon headed back as we didn't want to be walking in the dark.
Our second day of trekking was such an amazing walk with phenomenal views. The quiet, fresh air, the green hills everywhere . . . . We caught a bus back from the signal point at the end of the walk into Munnar town and headed for a curry. It definitely helped to be really hungry as eating curry all the time can get a bit much. We supplemented this by eating the homemade chocolates available in Munnar. We were so excited to find these as the choc in the rest of India is really soapy tasting and we have hardly had any. Apparently they put something in the Indian choc to stop it from melting which makes it taste so bad. The homemade stuff was delicious!
The last day we headed up to top station (a typical Indian explain it all name!). It was an hours drive on some dodgy roads but the views were well worth it.
We loved Munnar and will definitely go back someday - a little piece of paradise set on top of a mountain . . .
(You too at home can play along if you want.. just answer the questions!)
"Your good name?"
You answer, they tell you their name(s)
"Coming from?/Which country?"
South Africa brings a mix of response, from shock (why aren't we black?) and joy ("good cricket!.. Gibbs, Gibbs!").
Next we get even more personal.. "Wife?.. how many childrens?" and without taking a breathe to register your answer they will tell you their job title (in full) and ask you for your "Workings" i.e. your job.
Next question... "Earnings?" - A little bit personal for someone we've just met! We usually dodge this question.
"You like (enter city name here)?"
By now you are getting a feeling if you want to continue the conversation or not . Generally you can now gauge where the conversation is going.. on good days it can be a general chat, on others it can continue towards the likes of "you want a tour?/you need a guide?" or anything else that might help the passing of your cash from your hands to theirs.
Any transaction, query, question or just stopping in one place for more than 3 minutes , from shopkeepers to hotel owners to villagers, gets you the same line of questioning. Some days it's a delight, some days a chore, but you do definitely get to know your locals!
Monday, March 19, 2007
We spent a few days here walking the quiet old - and I mean old! - streets but its a welcome break from the hustle and bustle and noise of the major towns.. in comparison this place feels like a village.
Our first day we visited Jew street - an area occupied by the yids years back and centre for the spice trade. It has the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth which we were hoping to see but as it was Friday afternoon it was closed for tourism. So we spent the afternoon looking at curio shops, the spice shops and the general area which caters for tourists, there was even a shop selling kitka covers and menorahs. Speaking to a shop owner we discovered that one of the congregation live nearby so we go off to see if we can get into the shul.
The man greets us at his home and looks about 100 years old. He explains that the service at the Shul is at 6.30pm and will only take place if there is a minyan (10 men). He also tells us only 6 Jewish men live in Cochin so the chances are slim, he goes on further to tell us we cant come to Shul in our shorts/vests.
We stroll around the lanes for a further hour or so and return to the Shul on time to see whats up. It turns out to be the usual 6 (the old man has returned with his buddies - all looking 100 years plus) plus 2 Israeli's and some other guy who has come over from another island nearby. The Shul caretaker looks at the 3 of us (me and the 2 Israeli's are all wearing shorts!) and orders us down one of the little lanes to some old ladies house. We enter as she is lighting the candles and has the table set for two people - she is also pushing 100 I reckon. She speaks minimal English but gingerly shows us around her house and gestures for us to go upstairs. As we reach the landing there are 3 pairs of trousers ready on a hanger for visitors - I assume she gets this thing a lot and I also assume they must have belonged to her dead husband. We take the pants and make the minyan so the service goes ahead with 10 men, 4 women in a beautiful little Shul. Besides the older yids there is your token Indian Jew there too. Everyone is barefoot as its about 35 degrees.
At the end of the service they opened up the arc for the visitors to see the Torahs and a decorative cover made of gold given to the Shul by one of the Raj's (kings) back in 1805. It truly is exquisite. Following that, the main guy (the one under 100 but not the Indian) asked me to say the Kiddish which was kind of cool. We stayed a while chatting to all and then left to return the trousers to the old lady who was I presumed now sleeping (as she wasn't there anymore.. front door left open). We both felt pretty good as we at least had helped the community have a service for that week and even saved ourselves 2 rupees (the entrance fee for visitors!). We walked back with an Isreali women who turned out to be staying at the same guest house as us so we landed up having dinner with her.
The next few days we explored the rest of fort Cochin and its little streets. As its an island one of the attractions are these huge Chinese fishing nets along the shores. Running alongside them are numerous outdoor cafe's that will cook your fish which you have recently purchased from the fisherman... we had a whole grilled snapper for about $2!
A stonemason outside his store in Mammalupuram, some stone carvings around there too and a kid playing cricket on the beach.
The beach and cliff of Varkala, our friend Andreas and his family, and a picture that sums up the craziness of India and the traffic.
Some kids on the beach, the Gateway to India in Mumbai, Beach rd Mumbai (notice the state of the buildings!)
Like everything in India, all aspects of food and eating are an experience within themselves. Not really, well, not yet, but I often say to Ant that we have no idea sometimes what we are eating, and its often difficult to recognise items in a curry. The best thing to do is just eat, enjoy and most of the time our stomachs let us know what's been dodgy. After each bout of dodgy stomach events I try and pinpoint what it might have been, but its totally impossible. The pineapple juice? the curry? a tomato washed in dirty water? who knows, you just go with the flow . . .
Anycase, below and around is a selection of foods, street and otherwise, that are available. I must admit we have not tried many of them as as you can see most of them, even guessing the ingredients can be difficult. On the whole we have stuck to a variety of western foods for breakfast (toast, cornflakes etc), a small snack for lunch (fruit, nuts etc) and dinners have been a combo of fish curries, lentil curry, potato curry, something or another curry and even a i-dont-recognize-this-and-not-sure-if-we-should-be-eating-it-curry.
Some of the pics are found in your regular roadside drinks shop/cart ..mostly baked and fried sweet cakes and biscuits type things (not great!). Other things available are nuts roasted on the side of the road and chai (tea) stores. Not shown in the pics are the obvious lack of hygiene when preparing foods and of course the gazillion flys that are buzzing around almost everywhere (at night that are joined by mosquitos - a very irritating combination!).
The most common food down this part of India is called a Thali. Its traditional dish served on a banana leaf and eaten with the fingers (its the last pic). You get loads of little dishes of various spices mixed with veg, an unending supply of rice, a pompodum or two and a bread of some sort (roti, naan or chowpatty - they are all the same to me!).
Most of the spices include some form of coconut, chilly, nuts, yogurt, tamarind, lemon, lentils, cabbage, mustard seed, coriander - well at least these are the ones we have recognized so far. We aren't the biggest fans and every third or so day we are curried-out and need salvation with some western style dinning which is not always readily available!
Thursday, March 15, 2007
At 10.30am the next morning we got onto our houseboat. The House Boats are made from bamboo and coconut fibres and are absolutely beautiful. Ours was a single room, with its own bathroom, and we had a boat captain, engineer and chef. The team were great and we spent ages chatting to them.
We got back onto our House Boat at about 3pm and ate pineapple and chilled on the boat deck as it cruised the canals. We passed hundreds of fishermen and other canoes crossing the canals with people, coconuts, bicycles, a car and even a goat. All the boats have to stop moving at 6pm so they put down the anchor and we stopped for the night. All we could see on Lake Ashtamudi were palm trees. So so gorgeous. The name of the lake comes from the word meaning eight and the word meaning hair, as there are eight small connections that make up the lake. The chef made us such awesome food, similar to what he had made us for lunch. We told him it had been our best Indian meal as for once, you could recognise the veggies from the sauce. Most cases involve more sauce than anything else. The food was great. We chilled on the deck and then went to sleep in our little room. It was so quiet and beautiful. Right: Coir making
Allepey feels like about forty degrees, probably only about thirty-six, but yowzers, its so hot. We have a great room in a guesthouse so spending time just chilling there. Your clothes are literally sopping wet within minutes of leaving the cool room, dripping dripping dripping!
Sunday, March 11, 2007
"Look my shop?"
"You looking now?"
"Just looking see?"
Not my words, but those of every shopkeeper/stall holder in India. It seems everytime you leave your hotel room you have to run the gauntlet of over enthusiastic, over committed and after a while downright irritating shopkeepers to get to what ever destination you want to get to.
Ok, I agree we are visiting tourist hotspots and they make their living from selling to the tourists but it wouldn't be so bad if maybe they differentiated their goods a little. How many times can you look at the same cotton pants, tops, bags, throws, bracelets and little Indian trinket boxes? Time after time, shop after shop, the same product is everywhere. Maybe they are trying a strategy of blurring your vision with continuous repetition of goods, hoping you will get so dizzy you will part with your cash?
SOS my dad would say - Same old shit!
Its a terrible habit, lying to these people but its like trying to shake off a bad cold, not easy! An answer of "Not today" rumbles a response of "Ok, tomorrow looking!" .. .. urgh!
No peace in walking the streets here.
Eventually, (you will crumble - their system works! - you look at their shop) when you do find something you would consider buying the real fun begins.
The answer to your question of "how much?" is always divided by a minimum of 3 as a base for bargaining. The volley begins ..
"too much, 300?"
"too much, thanks".... (start walking away)...
"no thanks" ... (walking away again!)
"whats your final price?" - um, are'nt you the shopkeeper and meant to be setting the prices?
By this time your patience is wearing thin and polite as we are, we are getting ruder and more irritated by this stupid game by the minute. What ever happened to fixed pricing? Its hot, its tiring so why add to the stress with needless bargaining? Im sure a couple of tourists pay the prices but surely this isn't worth it. They have fought so hard just to get you to look, why piss us off anymore but haggling with prices?
So you find the item you like and decide to buy as the verbal volley of pricing gets closer to an agreement. You now find yourself arguing about 50 rupees - about 50 pence, 1 dollar! Its ridiculous! You are buying a tablecloth or custom made trousers/top and you are arguing viciously about 50 rupees! Im telling you its not normal - but at least its fun!
Having made your purchase, you exit the store/shack/couple of sticks with items hanging on them only for the next storekeeper/stallholder/stickmaster to scathe you with a "you look my shop too? you buy! make one person happy, me sad, not good! buy here!". Almost a command!
Patience exhausted. One raised hand and a mumbled "no thanks" is all they get - on some occasions this is nearly replaced by a "F**k Off!!!" - as you stroll away!
However, the disease is not only contained to shopkeepers but also applies to cabs and rickshaws (I still have to get into one where the meter does work!), tours and just about anything in the service industry. It seems the only fixed prices are those products that have the price printed on the packaging, but even that is often abused. India is like a giant competition to see who can squeeze the most out of the tourist.
So tomorrow morning after breakfast - in fact once we've finished this post in a hot and sweaty Internet shop and all we want to do is go for a swim, we will run the boulevard of bargaining once again. (and again!)
Ps - If anyone wants any of the detailed items above let us know, we love "looking my shop!"
Yesterday I was chatting to the girls that haggle you incessantly to buy things and tried to give them some sales tips. I explained to them that I, like many othercustomers, love looking at all the little things that they have to sell, but that they make it impossible to 'just look' and so chase many potential customers away. Sungeetha and Suko definetly seemed to take this on board, but the others carried on, 'Look my shop'.
Sitting at breakfast drinking fresh pineapple juice, I said to Ant that its amazing how sweet the fresh juice is in India. He said that he had read that they put sugar in the fruit juice. I have read the Lonely Planet inside out and saw nothing about the sweetened juice. But slowly I am starting to realise that many items that you buy in India, aren't what they say they are. The thing is, it is a kind and gentle culture, but if there is moeny to be made and it invloves a sham, then that's what its going to be. The owner of the Juice Shack said that only his restauramt sells real brown bread and theothers simply yse artfifical dyes to change the colour of their bread. Who knows whats in what? The tailors convince you that everyhwhere sells cheap cotton that will go shiny after a while, but there cotton fabric is the genuine thing. Meanwhile their cotton fabric isn't even cotton. Thats India, you got to love it, and just take it as it comes, and if the fish masala is really a street dog masala, it tastes okay. An english guy gave us a tip to always eat where locals eat and not where tourists eat. He said that owners will do what they can to scam tourists but not the locals who they want toreturn for more busniess.
Yoga in Varkala: My first class here was with a Yugoslavian man called Zola who runs classes on the beach every morning and evening. Great idea to do sun salutation as the sun sets with someone playing the flute, but the sand went everywhere and made the whole thing a bit ineffective. The best class was on a roof top of an old guest house. Not really a class as such, more an Ayurvedic Doctor doing yoga with lots of people, like me, doing it with him. He gives brief instructions and is a great man. The class starts at 7.30 am and by 8am the sun is beating down and you just have to move around the roof top in search of a patch of shade to prevent a yoga fry up.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Varkala town is a little village but a 5 min rickshaw bring us to the cliffs and our hotel (and a thousand others). The cliffs are adjacent to the Arabian sea. There are numerous ayervedic spas, restaurants and hotels lining the cliff looking down on to the beach. Its really paradise with loads of palm trees everywhere and a serene lack of traffic.
Our hotel pool in Varkala
Papanasam is a perfect place to watch the sunset or relax gazing at the horizon. The area is covered with coconut palms and small restaurants that are more expensive than most places we have been but it caters for the tourists as they far outweigh the Indians in this part of town.Our hotel is the nicest we have had yet and the bonus is that it has a pool. Handy in 35 degree heat! Varkala beach and cliff
Our days are filled with nothing, waking up to palm trees swaying in the wind, late breakfasts and lying by the pool. We go swimming in the sea in the late afternoons and watch bond films everynight (currently we are going thru the Roger Moore years - my favourites!)
One of the days we ventures into town, i haven't shaved since Ive been here so I'm off to find a barber The other reason is that Indians are now speaking to me in Hindi so I want to look like a foreigner again. i speak to the guys in charge of the shop and agree a price - 50 pence. I sit down and all of a sudden I'm been lathered up by a kid not not old enough to shave himself . I'm shitting myself... 3 weeks of solid growth, sharp blade and a kid who hasn't shave having a go at my face! Anycase, after asking me first if i want to keep my mozzi (i considered the option). he gives me a proper working over with a face message and all but before he finished he sprays my hair wet and I'm thinking what has this got to do with a shave?.. he grabs a comb and gives me the Indian style - Swiss style comb over side parting hairdo!!! I cant contain my laughter and i nearly double over in a fit. No wonder all Indian men look the same!
We are really chilled out and spend a little time with our new friend Andreas and his family as we keep bumping in to them.. this place is small and most of the tourists have left so its really easy and peaceful. The only irritation is a familiar pattern - and the title of our blog, and my next post - Look my shop!
The juice shack.. many hours spent here!
You arrive, you ask how much (variable answers depending on season, who's answering o the availability/non-availability of a rate card) and then are shown the room. We always insist on a window (hooray!). Everyplace has a has had a western style toilet. A blessing.
So checking in involves a form (doesn't everything in India?) - where are you from, where are yo going to next, passport number, visa number (I know both of these off by heart now). We go to the room and the inspection starts.
Usually you can see how your mosquito situation is going to be like by checking out the various wall splatterings. We scope out a way to hang our net (not easy in some places) and check to see if we have running (clear) water. We hit the streets.
Train accomodation. Not bad. Window included.
We check into our hotel - it looks snazzy from the outside, glass panels, mirrors etc - tacky on the inside. Our sheets have holes in them, one has a bloodstain on it and we find hair in our breakfast.
But on the plus side we have a window.
Trivandrum is a pass thru town on route to the beach resorts in Kerala. We decide to stay a night as we cant handle the mission of travelling again just yet. Trivandrum sprawls across a strip of land between the hills and the sea. Its spine is Mahatma Gandhi Road running for several kilometres from north to south, it contains, or adjoins, almost everything of interest, but beyond that, orientation is not so easy. Some streets are unnamed, few buildings are numbered, pavements are uneven or absent, and zebra crossings and most red lights are ignored by the omnipresent traffic. It's safer to hail an auto-rickshaw than to walk. I walk past a traffic cop doing his job on a busy corner, stoppping traffic, letting other traffic go. SO excited to see me he ignores his job for 20 minutes as we have a conversation about the world cup. After a while, I leave him and he is off back to directing traffic - how the cars must have missed him!
The highlight is going to the local market where everyone wants their photo taken. They are almost lining up as we walk around the various fresh fruits, spices and produce. We should be sending vanilla pods home as they are dirt cheap here and I could make a fortune in the UK.
The other highlight is a round building/tower which has been converted into a Indian coffee shop. As you walk in you are on a ramp with the tables on your left as you walk up and up and up. Its rather odd and quirky but will make do for a sit down even if the person on the other side of the table is a foot higher than you due to the elevation. We also meet a guy called Andres there who was on his own and he joins us. It turns out that he is taking a night away from his family who are in Varkala. We are off there next so we agree to meet up.
Market stalls.. every vegetable you can think of and enough bananas from every indian
After asking everyone and their cousin which bus goes to our destination we start getting annoyed at the huge variations in answers that we are getting. Walking up and down across a slab of asphalt in 35 degree heat is not that funny. Eventually we find our bus only to be kicked off by the conductor because we have luggage? Odd.
Anycase, we find another bus, sitting in its docking bay. We get on, slide our luggage under the seats so the conductor cant see and wait. Everyone is seated and a half hour goes past and we are sweating in places we never knew could emit sweat. The bus starts up its engine. It reverses out of the bay, moves about 10 yards and then switches off its engine. More passengers board as we wait another 15 minutes - this time we allow the standing passengers to board. Off we go!
The bus stops approximately 10 times on route. Each time I think that there is no possible way they can take more people, but they do. I see a woman hand her baby to seated passenger thru the window while she struggles to push herself on. Simone has someones foot on top of hers (no shoes) and Ive got someones arm across my face. This makes London rush hour on the tube look feel like the expansive deserts of the Sahara.
The DVD player isn't working so at least we have some respite from the sounds of Bollywood.
Two hours pass and we arrive safely, if not a little smelly.
Friday, March 9, 2007
However this is only in one part of town and the Indians have made it their own too. Its an interesting mix. The police wear the same uniforms as they do in France but work in the Indian style (i.e. do nothing). The govt building are all french marvels but in the Indian style (i.e. dusty, in need of a paint job, messy and odd assortment of furniture from 50 years ago). The restaurants are french too and french only.... wicker chairs, gingham table clothes, overpriced, poor service and small portions. The only Indian trait here is the offering of Indian dishes and the food served by a local.
Its all very nice but not what we want right now.
Our hotel, a lovely traditional house with courtyard in the middle - it would have been amazing but when we arrive we are greeted by a thousand Indians using the 12 bedroom hotel as location for a tv serial. Our room door opens on to their set and our window looks out onto the generator truck. Lovely.
We wake up to the sound of 'action'.
Everytiime we leave our room we have to ask as not to be in shot. There are light stands and rigs everywhere and every piece of their equipment is from about 1920. Its interesting to say the least. I tell them I work in Tv and get a minimum of 4 business cards, an introduction to the art director (I tell him to use a tripod instead of handheld) and even an offer to be on camera. (I refuse).
We leave the next day after getting a "noise discount" from the hotel - I think it should be called a "total inconvenience" discount. Its a bus to a town an hour away and then an overnight train to Trivandrum, Kerala on the southwest tip of India.
One of the many flower decorations in shops all round India and Sim sitting infront of their stock (which is usually just kept on the pavement in piles!)
Its the end of town.
We are sitting on a piece of dirt on the highway with only an advertising board to keep us sheltered from the sun. No sign - that says bus stop - or of people anywhere. A stray goat for company.
Three buses pass us before one stops. We both get a seat (not next to each other) and with bags on our laps we head off. The bus booms out a Bollywood film on 2 small tvs in the front. Volume level is Max plus 10. Oh well at least we aren't in a cab.
The bus ride is about an hour and a half and costs 60 rupees for the both of us (about 70pence). I just wish they would spend the money they receive on any of the following;
- Doors (front and back)
- Driver Education
- Suspension and/or shock absorbers
The road is flat but has numerous curves and every time we approach one I'm wondering how we either don't topple over or someone doesn't fall out. Its not that we are travelling fast its just that the driver doesn't slow down for corners. I try and concentrate on the film, after all its in Hindi and a mix between Jackie Chang and a Peter Sellars flick. How bad can it be? Well its better than watching the road.Sim ...
I sat in the bus, just beside the door opening, shitting myself that someone was going to fall out. I had heard two stories of people falling out of driving buses due to the lack of doors. I could see the back of Ant's head and he looked like he was chatting to the guy next to him - looked like a cricket chat. We got to our destination in one piece.
Our bus, DVD and all