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- Category: India (2003)
Nice lie-in today and feeling decadent so ask for my eggs fried just how I like them – sunny side up, egg-white not snotty, yolk still runny. It goes straight through me by the time we’re back in our room. Pack an overnight rucksack and we’re picked up by Nirmal and Shaji at 10am. Nirmal is dropped at his office in town, then we drive down to Allapuzha with Shaji. Out of town the scenery is palm trees, rice fields and the odd wide backwater. I nod off, virtually all the way to Allapuzha.
We drive along backwaters full of boats, little ones, large water buses, large luxurious kettuvallams, etc. We drive through the village to a place where many kettuvallams are moored. Our boat is called “New” (I think), a very large kettuvallam, intended for four. Even with four and a crew of three you would still have stacks of space aboard. The crew consists of Anil, the “captain”, Prathap, the cook, and a third man as general gopher. Prathap’s English is the best and is effectively our guide. The boat has a large open space at the front, with a coffee table and four wicker chairs, and a small dining table for four. The steering wheel is right at the fron of the boat. Behind this is a large seating cushion, a bit like a diwan. A corridor leads to the rear of the boat where the “galley” is. Off the corridor are two double bedrooms. Only one is made up. It has a full en-suit bathroom. There is also a sink set in the corridor. The boat is covered with a roof and screens made of wood, wicker, bamboo and palm leaves. The whole boat is made of wood. The whole thing is a little palace on the water.
A welcome drink of fresh coconuts is served as we cast off. The backwaters are wide, lined with trees everywhere, mostly palm trees, and small houses. There isn’t much other water traffic, apart from the odd kettuvallam, a few water buses and small canoes. We trundle along slowly, just watching the scenery, writing diaries. The rest of the day is an idyllic lazy afternoon spent cruising the backwaters and watching the world float by. Around 1.30pm we moor up at a palm tree. Our spot overlooks women working in the rice fields. Lunch is rice, sambar, fish, cabbage, beans, Keralan poppadums. A girl and her younger brother sell us a raffle ticket from their school. She still rips me off by asking me for Rs.10 whereas the ticket says it costs only Rs.2! We make two short stops for sightseeing and shopping at a village called Champakulam. First one bank of the village to walk through the shops (postcards, bindis for Ness and tasteful Christmas decorations!) and “do” the local church. It’s 480 years old and blue. Then across to the other bank to see an old (1904? 1924?) snakeboat. They race these things with teams of around 120. I’ll bet they go like buggery but all we see here is the bare boat. But apart from these stops we continue to trundle along until about 6pm. Along the waterways we see many women washing and bashing clothes. They first soak the clothes in the water, then bash it dry on the steps, “thwomp thwomp thwomp”. And kids waving at us ask for pens (extra street cred at school if you have an international one!) The whole lifestyle here is based around the water. The “Venice of Kerala”.
Prathap has jumped off in search of a tape with Malayalam songs (“not English music” we said when he asked if we wanted music). We moor up by a few houses, together with a few other Evergreen (operator) boats. Festive lighting, flashing Christmas tree lights, is strung along the roof, anti-mossie coils and oil lamps complete the mood lighting.
Prathap came back with the tapes and a borrowed stereo. He and another guy (from the boat moored in front of us?) spend some time fiddling with the wiring. As soon as they switch it on something goes “bang!” inside, a bit of smoke betraying what has happened. They still manage to get the box to work but not very well. Just as well as what I could make out of the music sounded pretty awful. In the background we can hear singing and Prathap suggests we go and have a look. Also gives us (me) an excuse to use the torch! A group of men and women are sat down on a large rug outside a small modest temple, well, a house with a small shrine. They’re singing accompanied by tambourines and drums. We’re quickly surrounded by the young boys who keep asking “what is your name?” and “do you have chocolate?” We sit and listen to a couple of songs, making it clear we’re enjoying them (bloody awful katzenjammer though) and make a Rs.50 contribution for the boat in the collection box next to the shrine. Then back to the boat for dinner. Mossies start coming out but mossie-spray and long sleeves mean we’re not bothered by them. Also get a fan to create a bit of a draft. In the background there are all sorts of exotic sounds: crickets, the continued “singing”, chatter heard from boats as they pass (can’t seem them as it’s pitch dark), and from houses across the water, and the occasional “plomp” as something is dropped in the water. The other kettuvallams and houses are lit. The atmosphere is magical. Prathap excels himself again with dinner, at least in quantity! He has been cooking on house-boats for tourists for three years and is no longer used to spicy food. Whilst dinner is tasty and does have some spices, it is pretty bland fare compared to other meals we have had. He has also prepared a chicken curry but doesn’t know how it tastes as he is vegetarian himself.
After dinner we sit on the big mat at the front of the boat, turn off all lights except the oil lamps and just lie there, watching and listening. We both nod off for a while and then head for bed. Our (wood-panelled!) bedroom is charming, especially with the mossie-net hanging down over it. A fan above the bed provides cool air. Ness sleeps solidly. I sleep well but in fits and starts. No bother from the mossies – hah!
- Category: India (2003)
I have been peaking through the windows of our cabin to see when dawn arrives but the sky is a bit hazy and instead stay in bed. Bloody mossies got me after all. I found the single culprit inside the net. It was saturated with blood when Ness splatted it. The shower is a cold drizzle but it’s better than no shower at all. A local man in dhoti clambers up a tree and starts chopping coconuts, some go “splosh” in the water in big bunches. Prathap gets some for us. We also have an uninvited passenger, a boss-man from Evergeen (tour operator). Prathap prepares a big breakfast of idlis and stuff, sambar, omelette with chillies, fresh pineapple juice and tea. It’s straightforward ride back to base, in convoy with the other kettuvallams. Coconuts are served as we get close to the endpoint. Shaji is there to collect us and drive us back to our hotel. He’ll pick us up again at 2pm with a guide to go sightseeing in Fort Kochi. In the meantime we freshen up in our room, have tea and write diaries.
Satish is the guide. I mix it up with Shaji and get confused which one is which. We drive back to Fort Kochi and Satish takes us round the main sights: Dutch-Portuguese “Palace”, Jewish synagogue, Dutch cemetery, Dutch-Portuguese-English church, and finish back at the Chinese fishing nets.
The Dutch-Portuguese palace is warm and sticky and reminiscent of the fort we saw in Old Goa, but on a more modest scale. Inside are various exhibits, but the main items of interest are the colourful four-hundred year old wall paintings showing scenes from the Hindu epics, mainly the Ramayana. Unfortunately no photography is allowed. Dark coffered wooden ceilings lend an oppressive air to the palace.
The Jewish synagogue, in a very small part of town known as Jew Town, is a light airy place. Outside the frisson of symbols catches my eye: a sign pointing to Jew Town and the synagogue is below a building with swastikas above each of the windows. A large tour group arrives at the synagogue while we’re there so we first listen to their guide’s explanation. He begins his explanation to his mostly Indian group: “You may have heard of a Christian book called The Bible…” Satish adds a bit more explanation afterwards.
The Dutch cemetery is an overgrown sad-looking forlorn place. I decide against taking a picture. Finally a quick look at the church where Vasco da Gama was originally buried (he was moved to Lisbon fourteen years later). It is just another church though, nothing special.
Then we head to the Chinese fishing nets. Fishermen are operating the CFN’s, I think more for the tourists than in earnest. I get to do my bit pulling one of the nets in with the fishermen (fee of Rs.50 for the fishermen). Glad we came back so we can take some pictures in the daylight. The fish stalls are open, flies swarming all over the fish which don’t look quite so fresh now. We watch the informal auction of the catches on the beach, all concluded in a matter of seconds without much fuss. We have a quick drink (another coconut for me) at a stall. We have about an hour to spare before the Keralan dancing we have booked for tonight. Ness has a brainwave and remembers something in the guidebook about an art café in a Dutch building. The three of us have masala chai and lime soda and we have chance to chat with Satish, which he seems to enjoy as much as we do. He comments that English tourists (i.e. us) are so much more open and friendly and inquisitive than, say, Americans. The art café reminds us of the bars in San Pedro de Atacama.
Then Satish drops us at the Kochi Cultural Centre for the “typical” Keralan dancing and heads back. Shaji will wait for us and take us to a “typical” Keralan restaurant near our hotel afterwards.
The Kochi Cultural Centre is in an orange building at a courtyard with derelict burnt out buildings. Inside a room plastic garden chairs have been arranged to face a small podium. Seven or eight tourists are already sat watching the performers who are sat on the stage putting their make-up on, in the typical colours and patterns of kottakali dancers. We sit down and also watch. A few more tourists drift in. The total audience is around fifteen. The “show” is more a demonstration of the various aspects of kottakali. We have only seen a bit of the make-up stage, normally this would take several hours. An older woman takes a seat to the side of the stage and provides an introduction and explanations. First the Principal of the KCC demonstrates the various ways in which moods and emotions are expressed through a combination of gestures, eye movements and facial expressions. Then the main act follows – a scene from the Ramayana – performed by two dancers. One is made up as the hero with a green face. The other as a pretty girl who later turns into a demon. Its odd seeing the dark Indian dancer made up to have a fair complexion with rosy cheeks. The show/demo lasts about an hour. We get confused when the old woman “thanks” the man behind the scenes (make up man) and we look to the back of the room to see our driver, Shaji, sat there. She also wangles Rs.100 out of me as a contribution to the KCC on the way out.
Shaji drives us to the “typical” Keralan restaurant not far from our hotel. We’ll take a rickshaw back so he’s free to go. An amusing sight catches my eye on the way: a bus full of people filling up at a petrol station. I think there was also a “typical” restaurant in Fort Kochi but Satish and Shaji had steered us to the Ernakulam one for their own obvious reasons. The restaurant is more like a canteen is attached to a smart Indian hotel – well smartish. There is a choice of individual dishes, the “ordinary” meal or the “executive” meal. We go for the latter at Rs.55 each i.e. less than £1 each. The meal is served on a metal tray with lots of little dishes and some space to mix it all together. Fingers are the order of the day but we cheat a little and use the small tea spoons included with the little dishes. Very tasty if a little basic. The metal tray is a substitute for the palm leaf that would normally be used for a Thali. We’re in the non AC room which does have fans but it is still very sticky. There is a box for AC charge on the bill for those eating in the air conditioned room. It seems a fitting place for our last proper night out in India before we get to our five star luxury palace tomorrow evening: typical nosh in typical (i.e. “normal” Indian not “typical” touristy).
We’re back in our room at around 9:00. I’m on the loo again at 9:05….
- Category: India (2003)
The holiday is rapidly coming to an end now. Today we travel to Delhi (positioning night) for our flight home tomorrow. Neither of us are ready to leave yet and would be happy to continue travelling. Hopefully we can make this happen next year. We’ve been talking about taking a few months out and I’m glad Ness feels the same way as I do. Getting it arranged will be the hard part but I feel we’re now ready for a big trip – lets see. For now we’ve had a little taster of India and its been good. We haven’t exactly slummed it though; drivers, guides, transport and accommodation booked in advance. Still its time to go and coming home has its own appeal; our own home, bed, shower and hopefully guts will sort themselves out too.
There are more quirky sights on the way to the airport: in Kochi there is a sign for the school of computer magic and the small print on an advert for an insurance company says “Insurance is the subject matter of solicitation” – huh! There have been so many little things that have caught my attention as we’ve been driving or walking somewhere. I’ll need a separate chapter to convey general impressions.
The TCI rep sorts us out at the airport. We have a bit of time to spare but it soon passes. There are signs that another VIP is expected – lots of military types are forming the welcoming committee. It turns out he’s on our Air India flight, an ordinary looking man in business class. The comfortable wooden chairs in the departures hall have antimacassars.
It is a four and a half hour flight to Delhi with a stop in Mumbai. There isn’t much to see out of the plane – there is thick haze every where but the Captain does point out Goa and Jaipur as we pass over them. There’s a bit of turbulence on the flight. We are met at the airport and are in our hotel, the five star Le Meridian, by about 4:00pm. It’s big and brash and our room is very ordinary – not at all what I’d expected but it does have a view over hazy Delhi from our eleventh floor eyrie. For a “grand luxe” grand finale I had expected something very different but it hardly matters as we’re only here for “positioning” anyway. But when you expect five star luxury it’s easy to find fault, whereas otherwise you would be pleasantly surprised when you get great service, location, whatever, in an unlikely place – a lesson for future travels! We relax in our room, have a drink and play cards, do a bit of shopping and head for the bar, another place of which I had “high” expectations but it’s a small bar, not even a proper bar as this has been cordoned off. We’re on the 20th floor but no grand sights over Delhi, due to a combination of Delhi’s haze and the smoked windows (and the fact that it’s dark anyway!) First reaction is to huff and puff but I soon settle down and a very well made whisky sour (x2) helps.
There was a vague plan to do some sightseeing and shopping in Delhi but we’re not in the mood to go traipsing around Delhi to see monuments and have had plenty of excitement so settle for a few drinks in the bar and catch up on diaries.
So many impressions have whizzed by us over the past couple of weeks, some we have captured, if that is the word, either on film or in our diaries, but the majority of it will simply collect into a general memory of India. Just the feeling of being in all these different places, seeing people on buses, in shops, talking or just sitting around. Signs in exotic writing, the collections of ordinary ads heaped together on buildings, traffic, people dressing differently, hearing the Indian patter, it’s all part of the overall picture. Amazing to think that only just over three weeks have passed yet we feel we have seen so much, felt really alive, a fantasy world maybe.
After a couple of drinks we move to the Pakwan restaurant on the first floor. Other choice would have been the French one on the top floor, Pierre (actually, I think it was closed anyway). Pakwan’s has a traditional Indian ambience. In a corner, chefs behind glass partitions are busy cooking breads. Just in front of them a small stage has been prepared where six musicians (five men, one female singer) play traditional Indian music (I can’t tell from which part of India though). The menu is difficult to choose from, it all sounds mouth-watering. Start with a sweet lassi, haven’t had this for a while now. There are several large groups, birthday parties, in the restaurant. Our table is next to a large table of young spoilt kids who have airs and graces and are bossing the waiters around and keep running around. But they settle down, for a while at least. The Rajasthani (?) band plays umpteen versions of Happy Birthday. Next follows a movie quiz, Movie Mantras. Clips are played on the big screen, a question is asked as a starter, the one who puts his hand up first and answers correctly then has to answer three questions to qualify for the “buzzer round”. Many people can’t answer all three questions and the two organisers keep saying “we’ll give it to you anyway”. Ness and I find the whole thing comical, observing from the sidelines. Another priceless Indian evening! That was our last night in India. Next time when we go to bed will be at home, which I’m now looking forward to. Delhi bed is v.v. comfy though. Guts still bad.
- Category: India (2003)
We wake up to a very hazy Delhi. Birds of prey, eagles, vultures maybe, are wheeling in the air in front of our hotel. We can just about make out the India Gate, not exactly far away but barely distinguishable through the haze.
Downstairs at breakfast there is a wide choice. I am sensible and only have a modest breakfast… of four (!) fried eggs, juice, coffee. Also some last minute shopping: a Ganesha for Phil’s car. Then it’s time to check out, meet our TCI rep and our last Ambassador ride to the airport. At the airport everything goes smoothly(ish), last lime soda and kingfisher in the restaurant, and pre-flight fags for me, and soon we go through security and board our place.
Very pleased again that we have gone for Premium Economy. India disappears from sight almost as soon as we take off and the haze obscures the landscape below for a long time. It gradually clears but there isn’t much to see below, a plain with signs of agriculture everywhere, that’s about it. It looks very ordinary, almost dull, from up here. Further on in the flight we do get views of the desert and mountains, a rocky brown dusty landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see and without any signs of civilisation, only a single line that could be a road appears after a long time. Huge sandy plains lie between mountain ranges. Further on, hours later, we fly over snow-capped mountains, no idea of their location. And later, by this time it is dark, we can see twinkling lights below, indicating cities and civilisation. I spent most of the flight watching films: Lara Croft, Trainspotting and Matchstick Men.
The flight ends with a grand finale: fantastic views of London as we circle above it in a holding pattern and come in to the landing approach. Shame we haven’t kept the camera out, it would have made for some stunning pictures. The sky was virtually totally clear. Below us London was spread out as a mass of bright twinkling lights and it was easy to pick out the landmarks: docklands, the Millennium Dome, Westminster, etc. Above us and all around us is a dome of stars. In between sky and land we can see the blinking lights of many other planes. Compared to the skies above Delhi it is almost as if we have been catapulted into a sci-fi film scene, the difference couldn’t be greater. It makes me wonder what any first-time Indian visitors to Europe on the plane must be thinking and feeling now. London looks like one enormous jewel.
We are met at the airport by our driver from Clockhouse Cars, who is helping out a lady from Singapore (?) who is lost and has no-one to meet her as she was expecting. They call her son in Singapore on the driver’s mobile. Then we drive home, not in one of the Ambassadors we have grown fond of but in a sleek smooth Volvo. The driver whizzes through London via rat-runs through West London and Chelsea. Another contrast compared to the Indian streets and hectic traffic. Ness is not feeling well, a combination of food, wind, etc. and probably just tiredness. We don’t go to the Builders Arms for a home-coming drink, a bit to my annoyance but probably for the better anyway. Then we curl up together in bed under the thick warm duvet and drift off to sleep, India now in our dreams… aaah, Indiaaah!
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